If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 49
This election would be a triumph.
She finished her allotted canvassing by mid-afternoon. She headed home gratefully. She needed a sandwich or, with any luck, asparagus quiche and a hunk of strawberry shortcake, if Sam had collected them from the café. And a swim, and to change into something other than conservative jeans and a Shame, Fraser, shame T-shirt. One of Matilda’s silk slips, perhaps, perfect for a hot day.
She also needed a hug. Somehow she had managed for seventeen years without hugs, but these days — and especially after the events of two weeks earlier — she now needed a regular ration of them.
The ute was parked in the carport as she drove in. Good. Sam and Scarlett were back too then.
She opened the back door. ‘Hello?’
‘In the kitchen!’ yelled Scarlett. ‘It’s Hungarian chicken pie and salad.’
Which might just be better than a quiche. ‘I’ve got peas and asparagus, basil and cauliflower.’
Sam appeared from the kitchen. ‘And we hard-working canvassers for the deposed Labor government have been presented with a walnut cake, a box of almond crescents, two bottles of Dusty Jim’s home brew . . . don’t worry, they’re wrapped in newspaper in the garbage bin in case they explode . . . and a painting by Melinda Sampson, aged four, of Sir John Kerr being eaten by a crocodile.’
Jed grinned and leaned into his hug. ‘We should give the painting to Nicholas. They could put it up in the office window.’
‘How did you go today?’
‘Brilliant,’ said Scarlett, looking up from tossing the salad. ‘Every single person we asked is going to vote for Nicholas.’ She grinned. ‘I gave them the sad, helpless waif look, and they melted.’
‘And I was strong, handsome, commanding and they all know my mum and dad,’ said Sam. ‘Sit and eat.’
It was deeply, profoundly good to sit with them again. Jed looked up from her pie to see Sam grinning at her and Scarlett. ‘What’s so funny, ape face?’
‘Call me that once more and I’ll shave my beard off.’
‘I love your beard. Why were you grinning?’
‘At you and Scarlett. You’ve discovered that families yell at each other sometimes.’
Jed shared a look with Scarlett. ‘Well, how were we to know?’ demanded Scarlett. ‘We’re new at this family stuff.’
Which finally gave Jed the confidence to say as Sam put the kettle on, ‘I got a letter from Mrs Taylor yesterday.’
‘Oh.’ Scarlett set her knife and fork neatly on her plate. ‘I . . . I forgot to tell you that I told her to write to you. She wants money . . .’
‘My first reaction was to tell her to shove the letter and a few other choice expressions Matilda wouldn’t approve of at all. But, Scarlett,’ Jed wasn’t calling her ‘brat’, just for now, ‘the Taylors are your birth family. I don’t want to think they will be homeless.’
‘They can rent something.’ Scarlett’s voice was carefully neutral.
‘Not much on what she earns at a supermarket.’
‘You don’t mean you are going to pay their mortgage, do you?’ asked Scarlett incredulously.
‘I’m not going to do anything unless you want me to,’ said Jed carefully. ‘And if I paid the mortgage, the chances are that your . . . that Mr Taylor would just remortgage the house again. I thought . . . what do you think about offering to buy the house in your name, but giving Mrs Taylor life tenancy? They should be okay financially if they don’t need to pay rent or a mortgage. I discussed it with Carol . . . I didn’t tell her the hypothetical case had anything to do with you,’ she added hurriedly.
She waited, grateful for the hand that Sam had slipped into hers. What she was offering was far more, financially, than she had offered Scarlett before. But surely it hadn’t been the money that was the problem, but the way she’d tried to use it.
Now she’d find out.
‘What would happen if Mrs Taylor wanted to move out?’ asked Scarlett slowly.
‘She’d lose her life tenancy.’
‘And if she died and . . . her husband . . . was living there?’
‘It would be your house. Your choice whether to leave him there, charge him rent.’
‘All right. Thank you.’ Scarlett took a deep breath. ‘That would be perfect.’
She didn’t ask how much it would cost. For it wasn’t money at stake, but compassion, forgiveness and an acknowledgement, at last, that money mattered not at all, except for what it might be used for.
Jed felt her heart slow down. They hadn’t discussed where Scarlett would live next year either. Perhaps Scarlett herself had not yet decided, or was waiting for her exam results and scholarship news. But whatever her sister chose, she knew the girl who had faced Ra Zacharia — who was still in a critical condition in hospital in Sydney — was capable of making her own choices. And her inevitable mistakes, as each human being had a right to do.
Sam stood. ‘I’d better be off. We’re interviewing this afternoon. Thompson’s manager and accountant have applied for jobs, but there are some other applicants too.’
Jed felt Scarlett’s glance. She kept her face showing nothing but the-person-who-loved-Sam type of interest. She had hoped — assumed — that the Thompson’s workers would be given priority. But she must back out of that project now too, just as she had to stop directing Scarlett’s life.
Money was like water, she thought. Good to swim in, bathe in. Money was wonderful only if it flowed around you. If you let it stick to you, you drowned.
Which reminded her: she needed a swim. She’d ring Drinkwater, and see if Matilda would like to join them, one hand on Scarlett’s chair and the other on her stick. And check that Michael didn’t need a hand with the sheep instead, because summer’s fly strike paid no attention to election schedules.
She glanced out at the glinting river. Her world was coming back into shape again. Scarlett home, Sam happy, Matilda admitting that the Gibber’s Creek Gazette was doing Gough Whitlam proud even without her urging, Mark miraculously happy with Leafsong.
And on 13 December Australia would have its elected government back again.
She woke, Sam snoring softly beside her, and glanced out at the moon, the Southern Cross just turning over to tell her the time.
She lay back, listening to the night, the river’s song louder in darkness, or possibly it was just that the cicadas were silent; the scents of rocks and sheep and starlight.
What had woken her? No sound, for the house was still. Worry? But there was nothing to worry about. Everything was . . .
Not that simple, she realised. Nor was it perfect. And she should stop pretending to herself. Sam was beside her but hadn’t raised the subject of marriage again, had not even hinted at it. Why?
And Scarlett. Impossible not to worry about Scarlett, and the thousand challenges the young woman didn’t even know she would face. This must be what it was like for parents, pretending to let go, but always the undercurrent of ‘what if’.
The election next month too. The election result seemed inevitable in daylight. EVERYONE, as Scarlett would say, condemned Fraser’s and Kerr’s actions.
And yet what of the loss of Blue McAlpine’s squished flies for Australia, Thompson’s Industries heading overseas, Mrs Anderson’s tears in the Blue Belle? What of Whitlam’s refusal, against the wishes of his advisers, to campaign on Kerr’s treachery, but instead to defend his economic record, as if voters cared for graphs or would be bothered analysing inflation and GNP and GDP figures? And the slogan that gave his opponent publicity: ‘Shame, Fraser, shame.’ Every time it was used it implied Fraser was the man in control. As indeed, he was. Had Whitlam’s refusal to see others’ viewpoints led, somehow, to this?
The powerful owl hooted beyond the river. Jed smiled, and Sam’s snoring ceased for a second as he turned and, still sleeping, reached for her.
No. These were four am worries, the kind that evaporated with daylight, a cup of tea and a bowl of porridge w
Gibber’s Creek Gazette, 13 December 1975
. . . remember that polls open at 9 am and close at 6 pm with voting booths at the Gibber’s Creek Central School, Rocky Creek Old Schoolhouse . . .
This must be the only election party in the whole of Australia attended by marsupials: another orphaned joey in Mrs Weaver’s shoulder bag, and a ten-month-old wombat with a leg in plaster being fed a bottle of milk by Felicity in the quiet kitchen off the main hall.
Sam watched Jed across the room, dressed not like the other Labor Party volunteers in jeans and official red T-shirt, but in a cool 1920s low-waisted dress of soft blush-pink satin, trimmed with antique lace at the hem, sandals and a Shame, Fraser, shame button pinned below her shoulder. He could see Matilda watching her too, from her armchair at the edge of the Gibber’s Creek Town Hall. Matilda had booked the hall, as she had for the last two elections, perhaps five minutes after the election was called, thus once again denying the town’s major meeting place to the Coalition supporters.
It was hard to read Matilda’s expression as she watched Jed. Pride, certainly, and love, but there was something else too. Wistfulness? Not a word that one would often associate with Matilda.
Did Matilda realise how much Jed looked like the photos and portraits of the young Matilda, kept on the living-room piano? They might have had no blood connection, but Tommy Thompson’s first wife must have very much resembled the girl he had first loved.
Did Matilda also know Jed was slowly taking her role as the lynchpin of Gibber’s Creek? For why else would the Gibber’s Creek Hospital, having heard from colleagues in Sydney, ring Jed to tell her of Ra Zacharia’s death, asking her to let Mark know, just as Carol had asked Jed to be there while she explained to Mark and Leafsong that Ra Zacharia’s will left all he had to ‘those members of the Chosen of the Universe who survive me’. Which meant that the other three survivors had enough money for proper medical and nursing care, and that Mark had enough money to go to university or a tech college if he wished. Or, perhaps, to buy the café building with Leafsong.
Someone else watched Jed too. Nicholas Brewster, MP. Did Nicholas keep glancing at Jed for reassurance, despite everyone around him assuring him that the result was in the bag? Or did Nicholas watch Jed for the same reason that he, Sam, did? Because his eyes were drawn to her wherever she was in the room.
His eyes slid across the room. Mrs Weaver, sitting, watching, contented. Nancy sitting with Moira, Gavin balanced between them, a plate of green vegetable mush on the bench beside them. ‘Now just one more spoonful, Gavin, darling,’ said Moira.
‘No,’ said Gavin. The word was clear and loud enough even for Sam to hear.
‘Nancy! Gavin said no!’ Moira’s face crumpled in delight.
Sam looked at Gavin’s clear dark eyes and smiled. He suspected the kid would use that word a lot in the years to come. Good on him.
The picture changed on the TV up on the stage. Someone turned up the volume: ‘. . . and now we cross to the Tally Room, where the first figures are coming in. And what figures they are! Despite only two per cent of the vote having been counted, it seems tonight will be an overwhelming victory for Labor . . .’
Electorate after electorate was evaluated, then Gibber’s Creek was mentioned: ‘. . . 3,291 votes for the incumbent, Labor’s Nicholas Brewster, and only 1,345 votes for the Country Party candidate . . .’
‘You’ve done it, mate!’
‘Always said you would!’
‘Early days yet,’ said Nicholas, his eyes once more seeking Jed’s. She gave him a triumphant nod, then moved over to Matilda. She sat on the chair’s arm and held the old woman’s hand. Matilda looked like a strip of bark etched by wind and sun and frost, frail yet still entirely intact.
It wasn’t fair, thought Sam. Matilda should have had her father’s dream left intact, without this bickering and the challenges. No one had challenged those other major milestones — Federation, and the rights of women, and for Aboriginal Australians to be counted as Australian citizens and have the right to vote.
Tommy had died seeing humanity reach the moon. Surely Matilda deserved to spend her last years watching Australia become the land of equality and modern opportunity.
‘Sam, darling, how is the factory?’
He returned his mother’s hug. ‘A mess. But we expected that. We’ve even got a name now. The Whole Australia Power Company.’
‘How modest,’ said his mother.
Sam grinned. ‘Jed’s idea.’
‘I do like that girl.’
‘So do I,’ said Sam softly.
His mother opened her mouth to say something, then shut it as his father touched her arm. For which Sam was truly grateful. He would not, couldn’t ask Jed to marry him again, not when she might say yes only because their lives were presently so well meshed together. Or because Nicholas was about to be married too.
‘. . . and with more figures in, things are looking even stronger for Labor. Although there are still no numbers from Western Australia, and the Queensland, South Australian and Northern Territory figures are only just beginning to trickle in, more than ten per cent of the vote has been counted now in the following electorates . . .’
More cheers. Michael held up a bottle of champagne enquiringly to Matilda. She shook her head, watching the screen. She alone did not look elated.
Sam shouldered his way through the crush, men holding stubbies, women shandies or plastic cups of chateau cardboard, cheese and tomato on Jatz biscuits, mini vol-au-vents and Leafsong and Mark’s small not-quite-sausage rolls. He put his arm around Jed, who was still perched on the arm of the chair, before he asked Matilda, ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Too early,’ Matilda said cryptically.
‘What do you mean?’
Matilda gazed up at him, as commanding as if she were a general at the height of his powers. ‘What time did you vote, young man?’
‘As soon as the polls opened.’
‘And you?’ she asked Jed.
‘The same, of course.’
‘Ask anyone in this room,’ said Matilda clearly, ‘and they will tell you they also voted as soon as the booths opened. Every person in the nation who feels passionately about the dismissal will have voted early today.’ She gazed around the chattering crowd, then added, her voice still clear and carrying, ‘And everyone who has voted for the Coalition, because they feel the Coalition can manage this nation and its economy better and more steadily than Labor, will have put off voting till later, in their shame at how this election was achieved.’
Even as she spoke, the TV commentator remarked, ‘It looks like we’re seeing a sudden swing in almost all seats. It’s quite unprecedented . . . In Gibber’s Creek now Nicholas Brewster still stands at 4,893, but his opponent has gained ground to 5,190. And as more votes come in . . .’
‘It has started,’ said Matilda. Her tone said, ‘It is finished.’
For a fearsome mistress she was to serve,
Because of her father’s blood.
Henry Lawson, ‘Because of Her Father’s Blood’
Matilda sat in her armchair in the corner, the balloons drifting about her feet as the crowd stared almost silently at the new figures on the television screen. I am lost in history, she thought. Tonight is history too.
But not the history that should have been.
She glanced at Nicholas, standing with a plastic cup of wine, watching as his government, his job, the life he had led for the last three years vanished.
My father would be up on a chair rallying them all now, she thought. No, Dad would have led an army as soon as it happened. We’d have stormed parliament behind him.
The words of the poem sang through her memory again. ‘Dad’s Poem’, though Henry Lawson had written it.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting<
Of those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle.
Would blood have stained the wattle across Australia if Gough hadn’t thundered his plea for peace and the ballot box? Would the people have stormed parliament, torn apart the polling booths, insisting that the elected government remain in office?
Gough was good at thundering. Less so at reading the mood of the electorate. Jed was right. He should have given the voters passion, not facts and economics. Dad would have . . .
Dad would have got people killed. Jed could have been killed. Nicholas, who would have been there too, a loyal man even if he was no passionate leader. Dead. Nancy and Michael, because if Jed had fought, they would have been there too. Scarlett, bleeding in her wheelchair . . .
Would it have made a difference if the Australian people had rebelled? For it must always have come to the ballot box, in the end. Australia was a democracy. Should be a democracy, even when the people chose wrong.
If there had been battles fought, perhaps, just perhaps, as emotions ran high in triumph, Whitlam might have taken back his prime ministership. But he would have lost the next election even more surely than he had lost tonight’s.
I am wild, Damned Wild, at the wages paid for fighting with Freedom’s Foes,
And the awful blunders the people made when at last they Woke and Rose.
You were wrong, Dad, she thought silently. Wrong to urge violence in the shearers’ strike. If you have to fight your own people, you have already lost the battle.
Suddenly she was deeply, profoundly proud of her country. Because there hadn’t been blood spilled upon the wattle this last month. Australia had sorted this out, decently. If the opinion polls had been right, most voters thought the dismissal was wrong — Fraser was wrong; Kerr was wrong. But they no longer wanted Gough Whitlam, or his ministers, in charge of their nation. And those who did not agree would accept it.
Tonight was perhaps the proudest moment of her life, and the bitterest.
A new lot of figures appeared on the board. The swing against Labor in Gibber’s Creek was over fifteen per cent now. Even if every single vote yet to be counted was for Nicholas, the Country Party had won there, even more certainly than the Coalition had triumphed in the rest of Australia.
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