If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 6
A second glance confounded her expectations. The commune’s orderly gardens were set within the bend of a river, great for easy irrigation. The orchard, perhaps, had once been goat nibbled, but well-tended fruit trees were now head-high and there were at least two hundred of them. The expected dome was large, built onto a deck against the slope of the hill. A young couple and a baby sprawled there on a beanbag. The man held up his hand in a lazy peace sign while another figure vanished inside. She couldn’t figure out why the concrete tanks beyond the dome were there, though the order everywhere else meant they probably did something sensible.
Two small houses sat on the hill opposite, both tin roofed, one with lumpy clay-coloured walls and windows that had once been car windscreens, the other with a wall of multi-coloured bottles set horizontally in concrete, two and a half walls of what looked like freshly applied mud, and half a wall of wire netting stretched up to the roof, with spaces cut for what Jed assumed would be doors and windows. Two nearby troughs from old forty-four-gallon drums cut in half longways held what looked like tufty clay.
The giant canvas tent in the centre of the commune proclaiming Magnifico Family Circus in faded letters was definitely not standard commune aesthetic, even less once she spotted the blonde mermaid and her blue-spangled tail painted on the canvas.
No sarongs or cheesecloth either. But nudity? Every single person here was naked. A dozen naked figures, half of them bearded, all long haired, swam and laughed in the river. Up on the hill near the parking space a naked young man and woman slathered mud onto the remaining bare patch in the netting wall of the new cottage. The young woman was her age, perhaps, the young man maybe a year or two older. Both were tanned beneath the smears of clay, with no white marks from swimming shorts or bikinis. The woman’s long blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail and the man’s brown hair was gathered in a leather thong. His beard and hairy body gave him a slight resemblance to a Yowie.
They were beautiful.
Jed’s foot slipped off the accelerator. She had seen naked bodies before. Of course she had seen naked bodies. But not so . . . openly . . . as this. Not naked bodies, working.
The ute burped, then stopped. Jed tore her eyes away from the young man’s nakedness to find Scarlett gazing, fascinated, and Matilda glancing at her, amused. But the old woman said nothing as she opened the door and slid out smoothly with the grace of a small person who’d spent years getting out of high-wheeled vehicles.
Matilda had, of course, seen at least one naked male body most of her life, as well as those of her sons and grandsons. She probably wouldn’t be shocked even if the inhabitants all had a love-in after dinner. Knowing Matilda, she would likely direct the proceedings, and tell them what they were doing wrong.
Jed scrambled out the other side and untied Scarlett’s wheelchair. By the time she had it on the ground the hairy young man had pulled on shorts and run down the hill to lift Scarlett out. He settled her in her chair efficiently, and grinned down at her through his beard and mud stains. ‘Hi.’
It was Sam McAlpine. Jed knew him vaguely, from New Year’s picnics by the river. But then he had worn swimming trunks. Scarlett grinned back at him, not even blushing. Jed suspected she’d found the display at the cottage more interesting than the diagrams of the human form in Dr McAlpine’s textbooks. Jed herself wasn’t sure if she was relieved or sorry he’d put on shorts.
‘Sorry about the display, Mrs Thompson,’ Sam added to Matilda. He gestured to his shorts. ‘It’s easier to get mud off skin than clothes. Everyone else has finished, but Carol and I still have a section of wall to do.’
‘There was nothing I haven’t seen before,’ Matilda assured him. She grinned. ‘And enjoyed.’
Scarlett gave the commune a short assessment. ‘Where’s Leafsong?’
Sam gestured to the almost invisible smoke shimmering behind the circus tent. ‘Cooking. There’s a table and chairs inside the tent,’ he said to Matilda. ‘It’s cooler there.’
‘Yep. And genuine squished-fly biscuits made in a frying pan, just like Auntie Mah used to make before they turned them into Empire Rich Teas and began the factory.’
‘Delightful.’ Impossible to tell if Matilda was being ironic or not. She accompanied Scarlett around to the tent, stepping as sedately as if this were a royal garden party.
Jed looked around. Gossip said Sam McAlpine had studied engineering in Sydney, then spent a year travelling through Southeast Asia, up through Afghanistan and finally to Europe before coming home. ‘Didn’t your parents own this?’
‘We bought the land from them.’
‘Me and Carol, and JohnandAnnie.’ He nodded up to the couple still sitting on the beanbag on the dome’s deck. The names sounded like a single word. ‘And Leafsong, she’s Carol’s sister. Bill and Susan have shares too, but they won’t move down till they graduate. The mob down at the river just came to help.’
‘Who was the other guy on the deck?’
Sam’s open expression turned slightly too innocent. ‘What other guy?’
‘I thought I saw someone slip into the dome when we arrived.’ And too quickly, as if the sound of the ute had surprised him.
Sam shrugged. ‘Must be one of the visitors. Probably down at the river by now.’
Jed gazed at the swimmers again. The water mostly hid their bodies. She hoped Matilda enjoyed the view. And Scarlett . . . Well, at least there was no free love. Yet. And she was well chaperoned by Matilda.
‘So you don’t all live here?’
Sam laughed. ‘Thankfully, no. Just the eight of us. The others are mostly mates I went to school with.’
‘How long have you been here?’
‘Two years. Just for weekends and holidays at first. We got JohnandAnnie’s dome up before Sunshine was born, then Carol and Leafsong’s house — we had to finish that in a hurry when their parents went overseas and left Leafsong for Carol to look after. Their dad’s a visiting professor of history at Yale.’
‘They just left their kids behind?’
The grin appeared again. ‘Can you imagine Leafsong at Yale?’
‘I haven’t met her yet. She invited Scarlett to the End of the World party and Scarlett asked if I could come with her. I hope you don’t mind my bringing Matilda too.’
‘Of course not. Mum and Dad are dropping by for dinner.’
Jed relaxed a bit. There wouldn’t be any free love or even obvious pot smoking if Dr and Mrs McAlpine were there.
Sam hesitated. ‘Leafsong is a bit . . . different. But she’s not stupid.’
‘Is she really called Leafsong?’
‘She is now,’ Sam said easily.
‘And you really are having an End of the World party?’
He laughed. ‘Everyone was coming over to finish off my place anyway. Leafsong wanted an excuse for a feast. She likes feeding people. Come and see what we’ve done with the cottage. I should be able to move into it next weekend. It’s amazing what you can get done in a day with enough people.’
He began to make his way back up the hill, where Carol was still plastering mud onto the chicken wire. Jed followed, trying not to admire his muscular back, the strong hairy legs.
‘Hi.’ Carol turned, looked at Jed looking at Sam, and frowned.
‘Carol, this is Jed. She’s —’
‘I’ve heard of her,’ said Carol shortly. She gestured to the bucket of mud and what looked like hay. Her nudity seemed defiant now, rather than casual. ‘Want to help?’ It was a challenge.
‘Sure. But won’t the mud walls wash away when it rains?’
‘No.’ Sam bent down and held up a handful of the muck for her to examine, as eagerly as a kid showing off his model dragon. ‘We had some problems with it at first, but I played around with the mixture. It’s two parts clay now to one of cement and one of chopped dry hay. The wall cracks without the hay added to it. It’s wonderful stuff, as long as the eaves are wide enough so the rai
‘Why not just use wood?’
Sam stroked the still-soft wall with what might have been a sculptor’s smoothing of the lumps, or a caress. ‘Mud is better insulation. And wooden planks cost money. This,’ his gesture took in both cottages, ‘cost nothing.’
‘Nothing at all?’
His grin had triumph in it now. ‘Nope. The galvanised iron is from the tip. Someone’s old chook houses. A bit rusty, but I filled in the holes with stringybark resin. Mrs Thompson — Nancy — showed me how. The chicken wire’s from the dump too. We cut the poles here. I’ve used mortise and tenon joints, so there’s not a nail in the entire house.’
Jed peered inside. ‘The floor looks like polished wood.’
‘Nope. It’s termite mound mixed with sawdust and blood, well tamped down then floated like concrete . . .’
‘Blood! You’re joking!’
‘Nope. You eat meat, don’t you?’
‘But I don’t walk on blood.’
‘Just wear leather shoes,’ said Carol, linking her arm in Sam’s.
Jed had never considered that she walked on part of a dead animal. She wasn’t sure she wanted to think about it now. ‘Doesn’t the blood stink?’
Sam grinned like Santa Claus had brought him every gift in the catalogue. He moved away from Carol and lightly stroked the floor through the door. ‘Nope. Polishes up a treat.’
‘Of course it doesn’t smell,’ chimed in Carol, as if articulating the very idea was evidence of extreme stupidity. ‘Go on. Sniff it! One day we’re going to be totally self-sufficient here.’ She gestured at the orchards, the acres of vegetables. ‘Grow everything we need.’
‘Can you grow your own refrigerator?’
Carol looked smug. ‘Sam’s put up photovoltaic panels on the roof. We’ll all have them soon.’
Which might power a refrigerator, but they’d still need to buy one. But that, perhaps, was quibbling. Not quite self-sufficient was still a major ambition. Jed looked back at the almost completed house. Parts of it looked familiar. ‘Where do those doors and windows come from?’
‘An old demolished house in Queanbeyan. They were happy for us to take anything we wanted. Cheaper for them than taking it to the dump.’
Were they from the half-collapsed house where she had squatted, three years back, in those hard happy days as she slowly acquired a family and a life? Most of the houses in that street had been in the same style, but she hoped they were from ‘her’ house anyway. That its remnants would be treasured here, to repay the shelter the house had given her.
‘Come on.’ Carol reached for more mud. ‘The wall cracks if you let one layer dry before adding another.’
‘Here.’ Sam offered a handful of mud mix to Jed. It felt drier than mud and lighter.
‘You’ll get your fancy clothes dirty,’ said Carol. It was another challenge.
Jed shrugged. ‘Then I’ll wash them.’
Or Mrs Purdon at Drinkwater would, because Jed Kelly no longer had to worry about washing or ironing — she suspected that Carol knew it. She slapped the handful against the wire. To her surprise the mixture held. She slapped on some more, seeing the wall suddenly grow, and saw Sam’s grin.
‘Fun, isn’t it?’
And the day lit up. It was fun — grown-up mud pies. But this was a house. Deeply useful mud pies. As Matilda had told her when she presented her with Dribble, everyone needs a house.
‘How do you get the doors and windows to stay in?’ she asked.
‘Ah,’ said Sam. ‘That’s where it gets really interesting. See how I’ve wired them in here . . .’
An hour later the last wall was complete, and the doors and windows were nestled into their cavities.
‘We’ll need to lightly wet the walls down two or three times a day for a while, or they’ll crack,’ said Sam. ‘A bloody good day’s work. Come and get some of that mud off you.’
He loped down the slope to the river. The earlier swimmers had vanished. A clatter of conversation and laughter from the other side of the tent indicated they too were enjoying tea, or a glass of ‘chateau cardboard’.
Carol cast Jed an unreadable glance and followed Sam. By the time Jed reached the river both were swimming, Sam’s shorts snagged on a convenient bit of driftwood where presumably the river’s current would wash away the mud.
Carol swam purposefully, strong strokes to the middle of the river, then trod water and began to swim again. Sam ducked up and down like a platypus.
Jed hesitated. She was hot and filthy . . . and had never been naked in front of a man, or even fully naked in front of anyone since she was tiny. And her clothes needed washing as much as her body. But if she wore them into the water, they’d be wet tonight. The autumn breeze coming down the river would be chilly when dusk fell.
She undid her shirt, slipped off her jeans and stood for a moment in bra and knickers. Somehow swimming in underwear seemed more . . . flagrant . . . than a fully bare body.
She undid her bra quickly, embarrassed as always by breasts larger than anyone else’s, except a movie star’s, stepped out of her underpants and ran to the river.
Warm silky water on the skin. She could feel the grime lifting from her skin as she breaststroked slowly through the water. Something more seemed to slide into the water too. Her past, perhaps, or all the bits of it that needed to float away . . .
She glanced at Sam, but he was still ducking, lifting up freshwater mussels and throwing them onto the bank. Carol was industriously swimming upriver. No one was watching her.
Except a kookaburra. And possibly Matilda, from over at the tent, and Scarlett and Leafsong and oh heck, everyone over at the tent . . .
It didn’t matter. She turned and floated on her back, uncaring that her breasts now faced the sky. For a moment she was part of it all, water, earth and air. Then she was Jed again, and hungry.
She hoped the end of the world meant a good dinner would be forthcoming.
Gibber’s Creek Gazette, March 1972
Gibber’s Creek Students Prepare for Sports Carnival
Gibber’s Creek Central School students are gearing up for their annual sports carnival. Pictured practising for the long-distance race are Johnnie McDonald, Patricia Felson, Matt Butten . . .
Scarlett sat in her wheelchair in the shade of the giant tent and watched them swim, three young bodies, whole and strong. Beautiful, as she could never be beautiful. Nor would she ever swim like that.
She could swim. Just. In a shallow pool with a therapist to guide her, flotation cushions under her elbows and knees. Swimming was the best exercise she was capable of. By the end of the year, she vowed, she would be able to swim by herself. If someone helped her into the pool or river . . .
But she would not be beautiful. Nor ever could be.
She had thought she looked so groovy in her mini skirt. But even flowered boots were not as beautiful as whole and healthy human bodies.
She glanced back at the small flat lumps of dough Leafsong was rolling on a large board on the rock that was evidently her outdoor kitchen table. Matilda dozed further back in the deeper shade, snoring slightly, a small old woman who had temporarily put off her cloak of strength and dignity.
The mob of helpers, some of whom she knew slightly, like Raincloud who had the shop in town, had wandered off to pick the strawberries that Leafsong had communicated urgently needed to be picked. Possibly the northern hemisphere could not efficiently explode unless the strawberry beds were harvested. Or maybe if enough strawberries were picked, it wouldn’t.
Scarlett nodded at the dough. ‘Can I help?’
Leafsong smiled and nodded. Scarlett wheeled closer and began rolling out the little balls of dough, as her new friend put them in to fry in batches. Suddenly the rounds of dough in the giant frying pan puffed up, patchily browned and even more patchily crisped, and smelling like the best bread in the universe.
Leafsong had just placed another cake tin containing a truly weird-looking mix of pumpkin, spices, eggs, butter and flour into a black metal box on stumpy legs that sat over one side of the fireplace.
How could anyone cook so well on a box that had no dials to regulate its temperature, or even a thermometer to tell you what that temperature might be? But when she’d asked, Leafsong had just opened the oven door and put her hand briefly into its heat, as though saying that skin alone could tell as much as a thermometer.
And probably it could. Scarlett approved of her new friend. Barbie and the barbarians would never DREAM of working out how to cook pies and cakes without a proper oven, in a proper kitchen, much less how to keep a billy of goat’s milk cool in a pool in the creek, or stand storage chests on little wooden legs in old cans filled with cooking oil to stop the ants encroaching. And none of them could so joyously cook beautiful, original food for about twenty people, two dogs and a million flies, though the latter had not been invited.
The flies hovered, crawled and insinuated themselves, drawn by the scent of meat and hot bodies. Scarlett wiped them from her eyes and kept rolling bread dough, her back to the splash of the swimmers in the water.
Darkness sat like a satin cloak over the river flats, scented with roast sheep, fresh bread, patchouli oil and unfamiliar spices. Stars wheeled in a vast cloud above them, their winking slightly dulled by drifting wood smoke.
Scarlett no longer felt conspicuous in her mini skirt. The girls at school lived by THE dress code of the year. Here jeans mixed with long Indian dresses or tie-dyed cheesecloth; mini skirts; overalls embroidered with flowers for both young men and women; ankle bells; or Raincloud’s moleskins topped with a T-shirt decorated with a peace sign.