If blood should stain th.., p.7

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 7

 

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
 



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  Faces shone red and dappled in the firelight, some familiar like Dr and Mrs McAlpine, others more ‘I’ve seen you around somewhere, haven’t I?’

  Conversation drifted. ‘Does anyone know how a butter churn works? Did you know Derek’s been called up? What’ll he do? What are the little grubs wriggling in the tomato crop? Have you read that Gloria Steinem article? It’s fabulous. Any rain coming?’

  It felt comfortable. She could even join in. ‘The ants say it’ll rain in the next forty-eight hours. Have you noticed them pulling bark over their entrances? What kind of thread do you use for your beads? Nancy Thompson, she’s my sort of adopted aunt, makes this really strong thread from stringybark . . .’

  Candles flickered in glass jars along the table, the coverings removed to show apple cake, pumpkin cake, pumpkin fritters, apple fritters, strawberries in orange juice with goat’s-milk yoghurt, tomato and red onion salad, green salad, potato salad, another potato salad with the yellow tang of curry, what looked like rissoles made of some kind of spicy lentil, sponge cake laden with more strawberries, squished flies, and brown rice tossed with stir-fried vegetables or made into crunchy balls with goat’s cheese in the centre.

  Scarlett ate hunks of meat wrapped in the bread to begin with, topped with an unfamiliar chutney; more meat, more bread, with a white and minty dressing; a plate of salads and more, all of which was wonderful — literally full of wonders.

  A feeble body trapped in a wheelchair had few pleasures of the flesh. Most of those were the alleviation of pain, weariness or stiffness. She liked food: adored ice cream, enjoyed the carefully chosen, nutritious food at River View, the roasts and puddings at Drinkwater, Overflow and Dribble. But Leafsong’s feast was an adventure. A fitting repast for the end of the world.

  Even as she thought it, Leafsong held up her hand. There was no watch on her wrist, but the meaning was plain.

  ‘Five minutes to eleven-thirty,’ said Matilda’s voice crisply from behind her, seated now on an elderly sofa with Dr and Mrs McAlpine. They had been talking of old times, of people called Belle and Fred and Madame.

  ‘Five minutes until the northern hemisphere blows up,’ said Sam lazily, lying against another rock seemingly placed there for that purpose. He wore only the shorts he had worn earlier, clean now from the river, and his ponytail still looked damp.

  ‘We should do something,’ said Carol.

  ‘What? Hide? Put a paper bag over our heads to keep in the oxygen for another minute when the atmosphere blows away?’ asked Jed.

  ‘Sing?’ said Scarlett, hoping no one suggested dancing. She COULD sing.

  ‘A countdown,’ suggested Jed. ‘That’s what we did at Honeysuckle Creek before the rockets took off.’

  ‘I forgot you’d worked there,’ said Sam. ‘Did Armstrong really need to pilot —?’

  ‘Not now!’ Carol frowned at both of them. ‘If we’re going to count down, let’s do it properly.’

  Was this how she really wanted to spend the last minutes of the world? wondered Scarlett. Well, why not? She was with people she loved, and others she liked. She had made a friend and eaten exciting food. And there was no use thinking of the things she hadn’t done, wouldn’t ever do no matter how long the world lasted . . .

  ‘Three minutes and counting,’ said Jed. ‘Two minutes fifty-nine, fifty-eight . . .’

  The others took up the chant.

  ‘One minute forty-four, one minute forty-three . . .’

  ‘Pass us a towel,’ said the male half of JohnandAnnie. ‘Sunshine’s burped.’

  ‘Sixty seconds, fifty-nine, fifty-eight . . .’

  Carol grabbed Sam’s hand, then Leafsong’s. Leafsong took Scarlett’s hand in her other one. Scarlett reached for Jed, who stretched towards Matilda, who held Dr McAlpine’s hand. A circle of small humans around a fire, as humans had sat for millions of years, the entire universe above them.

  ‘Ten, nine, eight, seven . . .’

  Leafsong’s hand was warm and strong. So was Jed’s. Scarlett’s hands would never grow larger, a little stronger maybe, but always wizened, an elf’s hands. Assuming the world did not explode.

  ‘Four, three, two, one . . .’

  ‘Blast-off!’ yelled Sam.

  The stars laughed above them, decidedly unwrinkled by any explosion to the north.

  ‘Maybe your watch is wrong,’ said Sam, glancing back at Matilda in the shadows.

  ‘My watch is never wrong,’ said Matilda.

  ‘Ah, well. Looks like the end of the world was a dud. Again.’

  ‘Did you KNOW there was supposed to be an end of the world last century too?’ asked Scarlett. ‘Some guy said the Day of Judgement was coming. All his followers sold their homes and ran to the Blue Mountains.’

  ‘What happened then?’ asked Carol.

  ‘I suppose they came down again. Eventually. And people all over Europe thought the world would end in the year 1000.’

  ‘Total fuc—’ began Clifford.

  ‘Language,’ said Matilda sharply. ‘I will not have words like that used on my land.’

  ‘It’s our land,’ said Clifford.

  ‘The people’s land,’ corrected Carol. ‘Property is theft.’

  ‘You own land by loving it. By working it,’ said Matilda. The fire shadows flickered on her face as she directed her question to JohnandAnnie. ‘How much work did you do today?’

  Perceptive old dragon, thought Scarlett. She bet those two hadn’t even helped build the dome they now occupied.

  ‘That’s the old Protestant work ethic,’ said the male JohnandAnnie lazily. ‘We’re not letting it capture us.’

  ‘Evidently,’ said Matilda pointedly. ‘But you’ll benefit from the work ethics of other people?’

  ‘Or the American capitalist dream,’ added Carol.

  Matilda laughed. Somehow an old lady could laugh without it sounding like an insult. ‘You’ve adopted a fair bit of American culture yourselves. Where did the design for the dome come from? Australia has its own building styles, ones that fit the land and the weather. All your anti-war slogans, denim, cheesecloth and flowers, they’re all imported from the USA. And those four-letter words you young people use all the time. In my youth a man had at least three thousand words to swear with. How many do you have?’

  ‘What the fu—?’ began Clifford.

  ‘What do you suggest instead?’ put in Sam quickly.

  ‘I think my favourite was looking like a dead duck in a thunderstorm,’ said Matilda dreamily. ‘Or talking like your head is under twenty feet of concrete. Or the bloke who was lower than a snake’s belly . . .’

  ‘But you need expletives,’ said Carol, for once interested, not antagonistic. ‘When you put a garden fork through your foot, you need a single forceful word.’

  ‘You also need boots,’ said Matilda mildly.

  ‘Well, there are other words that begin with “f”,’ said Sam. ‘Furry . . .’

  ‘Farinaceous,’ said Carol.

  ‘Not forceful enough. How about frotting?’ said Jed, clearly expecting no one to know what it meant. Scarlett did and so, from their faces, did Matilda and Carol, though neither commented.

  ‘Phantasmagorical,’ suggested Scarlett. ‘I know it’s not an “f”, but it’s the same phonetically.’

  ‘How about phonetics?’ offered Jed.

  Carol grinned. It was Leafsong’s grin, without the crooked bit. ‘Okay. Next time I put the fork through my foot I’ll yell, “Phonetically farinaceous furries!”’

  ‘Next time,’ said Matilda, ‘you will wear boots.’

  ‘Have you had a tetanus shot?’ asked Scarlett. ‘Did you KNOW that last year some of Mr McPherson’s sheep got tetanus and —?’

  ‘Thank you, Dr O’Hara. I’ve had my tetanus shots.’ Carol rose to her feet, and dropped a kiss onto Leafsong’s forehead. ‘How about some music?’

  Scarlett sighed. Protest songs and out-of-tune guitars played by someone who knew only three chords. Leafsong headed to
the other side of the tent. Scarlett heard the lid of a chest open, then shut again. Notes twanged: tuning up.

  And suddenly, astonishingly, music. Not a guitar, but a violin. Not protest songs, ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’, or songs about peace or Vietnam. This was Irish folk music, a melody that picked your feet up and set you dancing. Figures were already leaping up and stomping joyously in the firelight. Carol glanced at Sam, who looked at Jed, but someone else already had Jed’s hand. Sam bowed instead to Matilda. ‘May I have the honour?’

  Matilda laughed, a pure Matilda laugh, a young woman’s laugh, not an old one’s. ‘Of course!’

  They all danced, except her and Leafsong with her violin. If Scarlett could have played an instrument too, it would have been easier, even if she couldn’t dance. But she wanted to dance! Wanted to move her body to the music. The music grabbed her, held her, refused to let her go.

  Almost without knowing it she pressed the controls of the wheelchair, swung it into the midst of the dancers, and played the controls back and forth so the chair danced, so she danced, and the stars above them whirled more slowly, but were dancing too. And the others stood back and clapped and yelled, and then began to dance again.

  And she was not alone.

  Chapter 9

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, October 1972

  Land Rights Not Discrimination, by Jed Kelly

  Yesterday I sat outside Parliament House, so blindingly white in the Canberra sunlight. I sat next to a smoky fire like many of us around Gibber’s Creek have used to boil our billies. Beside me sat four black warriors for freedom: Aboriginal Australians who are members of the small Tent Embassy erected on the parliamentary lawns to claim recognition for their race, and the land that has been taken.

  What is it to be black in Australia today? It is to be denied jobs — so much ‘nicer’ to hire a white face than a black one. If you are an Aboriginal stockman, you may not get equal pay, even though you may be the most skilled rider and horse-breaker in the district. Schools find excuses to expel Aboriginal students. In Queensland, hard-working, moral black women who share a house are deemed, by law, to be prostitutes, with no reason offered except the colour of their skin. The federal government grants leases at low rent, often to overseas interests, over vast areas of land where those people of Australia have lived for thousands of years. Those living on the prison-like ‘reserves’ may not even leave without permission, nor may their relatives visit if they are deemed to be ‘troublemakers’.

  Troublemakers such as those who campaign for equal rights.

  A Whitlam government promises to overrule all state laws that discriminate on the grounds of race. There will be free legal representation for Aboriginal Australians who are denied their rights . . .

  JED

  Jed stared at the Drinkwater dining table. Placemats on the shining surface, just as they should be. Family present, as they were at least one Sunday a month after church, Matilda at one end of the table, Jim down from Sydney sitting in what had been his father’s place, Nancy and Michael on either side of the twins. Tom and Clancy were three years old now and needed herding. Scarlett sat beside her on the other side. Maxi lay in her usual spot, nose just beyond the division of dining room from hallway.

  All as it should be. Except the food. Stuffed shoulder of lamb, sure, with Jim carving it and sending the plates down the table. But the rest . . .

  No roast potatoes. No roast pumpkin. Instead the potatoes were in a casserole, sliced and cooked into a creamy pie. The carrots looked shiny, dotted with chopped green. And there, next to the dish of peas mixed with tiny squares of bacon, were . . . zucchinis? What was an exotic vegetable like zucchini doing on the Drinkwater dinner table?

  ‘Where did the zucchinis come from?’

  ‘The commune.’

  Of course. Last time she’d dropped Scarlett there she’d noticed glasshouses.

  ‘Sam McAlpine is such an industrious young man,’ said Matilda. ‘He really is wasted there. He thinks he’ll have tomatoes ripe by November.’

  Michael helped himself to gravy. A much thinner gravy than usual, meat juice with a hint of what might be wine . . .

  ‘Tomatoes in November? At Gibber’s Creek?’ Jed felt both disbelieving and slightly scandalised.

  ‘Sam tends to know what he’s doing,’ said Michael mildly. ‘He’s putting in solar hot-water panels for us at Overflow.’

  Jed tasted the zucchini. It was delicious. She had only discovered the concept of ‘home’ three years ago. Perhaps it was time to revise her assumption that ‘home’ never changed.

  ‘Leafsong also cooked lunch today,’ said Matilda, placing enough potato to adequately fuel a football team on her own plate. ‘She asked me if she could do some cooking for me. There’s quite enough work for Anita looking after the house.’

  Leave home for a few months and it all changed. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ she asked Scarlett.

  ‘Leafsong only started today.’ Scarlett took another bite of lamb. Scarlett’s hands were steady now, strong enough to lift up the water jug and fill her glass and Matilda’s. ‘It’s a sort of trial. She cooked lunch, then left it in the oven. She doesn’t do washing-up.’

  ‘Sensible girl,’ said Jed.

  ‘I said I’d hire her regularly if we all liked her cooking,’ said Matilda.

  ‘DO you like it?’ demanded Scarlett.

  Matilda smiled at her. ‘After two mouthfuls, probably yes. Tom, darling, don’t put peas up your nose.’

  ‘Blow,’ insisted Nancy, holding a hanky up to her son’s face.

  ‘What else has been happening?’ enquired Jed.

  ‘Best wool prices we’ve ever had,’ said Nancy with deep satisfaction. ‘And Tom and Clancy can sing “Baa Baa Black Sheep” now. Show Auntie Jed how you can sing, boys.’

  Jed chewed lamb — extremely tender lamb and perfect gravy — while the twins sang enthusiastically, but not quite in tune. Technically, she was the boys’ first cousin, once removed, and Jim and Michael were her great-uncles — her long-dead mother had been Tommy’s granddaughter from his first marriage — but the word ‘auntie’ sounded good.

  ‘Anything else new?’ she asked, when the boys had finished and were trying to skewer their lunch with spoons and forks again.

  The silence stretched just a little too long. Even Scarlett didn’t look at her.

  ‘There’s a meet-the-candidate party at the Town Hall tonight,’ said Nancy calmly. The woman who had survived three years in a Japanese prison camp, faced the years when she was sure that starvation and illness had left her unable to have the children she longed for, who had created the rehabilitation centre for crippled children, was quite capable of telling Jed Kelly that the town was essentially meeting to celebrate the man who had jilted her. ‘We’re all going.’

  Not me, thought Jed. But if she didn’t go with all the others, that would look even more pointed. Farinaceous furries! And phonetical too . . . If someone had warned her (Danger. Nicholas alert!), she could have hauled Julieanne home with her as a sort of shield. ‘The election hasn’t even been called yet.’

  Nancy shrugged. ‘I suspect McMahon will hang on till the last legal minute, hoping the opinion polls change. But the sooner the electorate gets to know Nicholas, the better. Excellent article you wrote in the Gibberer last week, by the way.’

  Jed acknowledged the compliment with a nod. So Nicholas would be in Gibber’s Creek. But he’ll be different now, she thought desperately, with his new legs, new life. New fiancée. And yet that memory remained — of that glimpse into the future. Nicholas with a beard flecked with grey, that future love between them too powerful to doubt.

  It had been three years since she’d had a glimpse of the past or future. Was that because she was no longer lonely, no longer had to peer through time to find a friend? Was seeing ‘ghosts’ something you grew out of, like acne?

  ‘I have an essay to finish before I go back tomorrow night,’ she said. ‘Pass the peas, pleas
e, Scarlett.’

  ‘You’ve already finished it,’ said Scarlett, lifting the peas with those wonderfully steady hands.

  ‘How do you know?’

  ‘Because I read it. Well, you didn’t SAY I couldn’t. I read all your essays.’

  ‘Why?’

  Scarlett shrugged, a narrow-shouldered shrug that would have been impossible such a short time ago — this girl really was a miracle. ‘Because I’m bored. School is boring. Your uni stuff is more interesting.’

  Jed sighed. School was essential if Scarlett was to go to university. And school — any school, not just there in Gibber’s Creek — was boring for anyone with enough intelligence and curiosity to scan and remember within the first few days of term the entire contents of her textbooks. ‘It’ll be better next year when you can choose your subjects.’

  ‘How much better?’

  ‘Not much.’

  ‘I have a mauve velvet you might like to wear this evening,’ said Matilda, a little too temptingly. ‘Grrr,’ she said to Clancy, who had slipped under the table and was pretending to be a tiger, gently savaging her foot. His brother joined him. A cry of ‘I’m a lion!’ followed by ‘No, we’re tigers!’ mingled with the sounds of scuffling.

  The adults ignored them. ‘An evening dress?’ asked Jed.

  ‘Too formal. What used to be known as a cocktail dress. A loose-draped top and quite beautiful embroidery.’

  It was not a bribe. Matilda knew her too well to think that offering her what was possibly a fortune in 1920s designer clothes would lure her to a campaign party. But it was, perhaps, a way of saving face.

  ‘How can I refuse a mauve cocktail dress?’ Jed said casually. ‘What time and where?’

  ‘Eight pm,’ said Jim. ‘The Town Hall.’

  ‘I thought you’d be voting for Billy McMahon.’

  Jim looked startled. ‘Why?’

  ‘You think Australia should be in Vietnam. You don’t like . . .’ Jed hesitated, trying to find a tactful way of saying ‘anything progressive’.

  ‘I want what’s best for this country,’ said Jim, only slightly pompous. ‘McMahon’s let inflation run away from us. Impossible to run a business efficiently with decent contracts when you don’t know what the currency will be worth in two years’ time. Gough Whitlam is no fool,’ he added. His tone might also be adding — ‘and he’s no working-class Labor union lout either’.

 

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