If blood should stain th.., p.8

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 8

 

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
 



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  ‘Can we pick Leafsong up on the way?’ demanded Scarlett.

  ‘Sure,’ said Jed, giving in completely. ‘The more the merrier. How does she get here, by the way?’

  ‘Bicycle. A three-wheeler with a trailer to carry vegetables. Sam made it.’

  ‘Out of recycled bits from the dump?’

  ‘How did you know?’

  ‘I guessed,’ said Jed absently. Nicholas. Why couldn’t he have stayed safely up in the mountains? ‘What’s for dessert?’

  Nancy stood and began to gather the plates. ‘Black Forest cake with preserved cherries and home-made vanilla ice cream.’

  Ha, thought Jed. Carol’s self-sufficiency couldn’t manage ice cream yet, despite all they had achieved. ‘Extra ice cream, please,’ she said, and began to help clear the vegetable dishes.

  Chapter 10

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, October 1972

  Vote Labor for Women, by Jed Kelly

  I talked to a woman cleaning the public toilets last night. She’s a widow, but the few dollars’ pension this government allows her does not even pay the rent on her council house. She works ten hours a day, six days a week, while her oldest daughter looks after the younger ones. For this she is paid $19.50 a week. The basic wage for a man is $54 a week, and with overtime, in this woman’s job, he’d bring home $120 a week — six times what she is earning.

  The McMahon government says men must be paid more than women because men provide for their families. But women support families too. This is why the Women’s Electoral Lobby backs Gough Whitlam in the next election.

  I am a woman. If I married, I would not be allowed to be a permanent public servant, or a teacher, or a nurse in many of our hospitals. In Broken Hill I would not be allowed to hold any job at all. Married or not, I can’t take an apprenticeship as a mechanic or engineer.

  Women who have been beaten by their husbands must try to hide with their children, because if they are found their husbands can divorce them for desertion. The husband will be given custody of their children, no matter how vicious or violent he has been. Couples who have committed no crime against each other, except to grow apart, must live together in bitterness, with no legal cause for divorce.

  Women’s rights affect us all. A Whitlam government will legislate for no-fault divorce and make the welfare of the child more important than who was right or wrong in a marriage . . .

  JED

  Jed walked to the billabong after lunch while Scarlett had a nap at Dribble. Scarlett’s body grew stronger with each month of relentless therapy, but the effort of doing things others found normal, even serving a meal, exhausted her. It had been easy to persuade her that if she were going to the meeting at the Town Hall tonight, she needed to rest now.

  Or perhaps Scarlett realised Jed needed some time alone.

  The road looped a long way from the river here, out of potential flood reach, but the billabong was only a ten-minute walk across the river bend from Dribble. Rivers meandered more than roads, but they took you through what mattered most: snarls of native raspberries, the fruit fatter, more pungent and more hardy than the tame garden varieties; tangles of driftwood for campfires; the song of water, which you could hear every time you listened.

  She headed over the sandbank to the billabong. It looked the same as it had when she was first there, nearly four years earlier.

  She sat against a tree, the same tree that Fred the swaggie had sat against that night. She had been starving, scared, scarred, and desperately hoping to con Matilda and Tommy into accepting that her dead mother had been Tommy’s long-lost granddaughter, because even if there was just a thread of possibility that she was, Jed had no proof.

  And Fred the swaggie had fed her sausages and courage and claimed to be a ghost, a soldier who had officially died a hero in World War II, but who secretly returned each year to the district to make sure his sister and the woman he loved were happy.

  Jed had glimpsed Matilda and her father there, far in the past, just before the troopers arrived to arrest him. The troopers had been good men, Matilda had told her once, as horrified at her father’s accidental death as was the old man, the ‘squatter mounted on his thoroughbred’, her father’s grandfather, though he had never acknowledged Jim O’Halloran as his grandson because of his Aboriginal heritage.

  Good men had caused the death of another good man at this billabong by enforcing the laws of those who owned Australia in those years, who could call on the laws they had themselves made to protect both power and property.

  Australia had changed dramatically after Federation, the new national government abolishing child labour, creating a basic wage and giving votes to women. Could Australia change so fast and deeply once again?

  Jed gazed at the gum leaves drifting towards the river in the faintest of hot breezes. She had seen herself there too, older, happy, with a boy who called her ‘Mum’. She had smelled sausages again that day, and known that they were ghost sausages and that Fred, if he were still there, was truly a ghost too.

  And she had not come again.

  She was not afraid of ghosts. A soul could leave the body but . . . something . . . remained. Especially, perhaps, in places where time grew thin, for time was not a line, not always. Here at the billabong past and present lived next door to each other.

  Had she loved Fred? She had never considered that. The old man had saved her life twice, had given her food and courage. And, yes, she loved him. Love came in more flavours than ice cream.

  She shut her eyes. And suddenly the smell of sausages was there again, the flicker of flame heat on her legs. The tolerant amusement of a man who had decided to own nothing, and by doing so owned each step of the land he walked on, every place he chose to build a campfire.

  ‘You there, Fred?’ she asked, her eyes still shut. Because seeing the past or future was one thing, but Fred had died in a fight with the murderer who had nearly killed Jed. Fred had died stabbed and bleeding, and if he appeared like that now, she was not sure she could face it. ‘I never did thank you.’

  Was that a chuckle, or the wind? ‘I . . . I just wanted you to know. It’s all good now. I finish my uni degree this year. I’ve got a family. Everything I’ve ever wanted, except that I’m not sure what I want next . . .’

  ‘Are you all right?’

  Jed opened her eyes. Sam’s bearded face looked down at her. He wore a faded flowered shirt, the same stained shorts he’d worn at the party, Blundstone boots and socks and a sweat-stained Akubra hat, his ponytail hanging down incongruously behind it. He looked half Gibber’s Creek farmer, half hippie, and even more like a friendly Yowie. He held a bicycle, a normal-looking two-wheeler.

  Jed scrambled to her feet. ‘Yes. Just talking to myself. What are you doing here?’

  ‘I thought I saw smoke. There’s a total fire ban today. Wondered if anyone was camping here. It’s drying off early this year.’

  Jed nodded. Gibber’s Creek could transform winter’s jewelled ice spiderwebs to brown baked hills and potential bushfire within a week, and then change even faster to frozen drifts of hail. ‘No fire. Just me.’

  He frowned. ‘I’m sure I saw smoke.’ He lifted his nose, a little like a dog’s, sniffing the air. ‘I can smell it. And sausages cooking too.’

  What the heck. This bloke lived on a commune and wore a ponytail. Who cared what he thought? ‘I smelled the fire too. I even felt it on my skin, though I didn’t see it. The billabong’s haunted, you know.’

  ‘Is it now?’ Sam looked at her, neither believing nor disbelieving.

  ‘By a swaggie who was kind to me. He died fighting a murderer —’

  ‘You mean Fred?’

  Jed stared. ‘You know about Fred?’

  ‘Of course. The girl Fred loved was my mum.’

  Jed had forgotten that. ‘She told you?’

  ‘About being Belle the mermaid at the circus? And how Fred loved her? Yes.’

  ‘Your dad didn’t mind?’

  ‘No
,’ Sam said gently. ‘Dad’s always known it was him Mum loved, right from the first. Said that was what got him through the war, knowing Mum would wait forever if he didn’t make it back.’

  ‘So you believe in ghosts?’

  ‘Do you?’

  ‘I . . . I think I must, if I’ve come here to talk to Fred. I’ve never seen one though.’

  The wind whispered around her — or was it Fred? — ‘Tell him. Tell him . . .’

  She said in a rush, ‘But I do sometimes see bits from the past or future . . .’

  She waited to see Sam’s reaction. She had never told anyone about her visions, except Matilda and Nancy. Matilda believed her, because her friend Flinty saw people from the past or future too, on the rock below her farm. And Nancy probably believed her, or at least accepted that Jed herself believed.

  She waited for Sam to laugh, or recoil. But he just nodded. ‘Dad said Aunt Flinty believes the rock below their farm is like that. Somehow time is . . . wobbly. Not so solid.’

  Jed had also forgotten that Flinty was Sam’s aunt. Family connections around there were worse than tangled wool. ‘Does your dad believe her?’

  ‘Aunt Flinty brought Dad up, after their parents died. Dad says she’s the strongest, most practical woman he’s ever known, except maybe for Mum. So, yes, I reckon he believes her.’ Sam looked at Jed with gentle curiosity. ‘What do you see?’

  And suddenly she told him — about the boy from the past who had been her friend as a child, the woman from the future with the strange vehicle, Matilda and her father, the couple at the future ruins of Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, the child who called her ‘Mum’, even the glimpse of herself as an older woman. Everything . . .

  Except, of course, about seeing Nicholas, far in the future and knowing not just that she loved him, but feeling the warm tendrils of his love for her, stronger than a wonga vine and even more enduring.

  ‘Well?’ she asked.

  ‘Interesting. I’d like to know more about the future car you saw.’

  ‘Sorry. There wasn’t time for a technical explanation. I don’t even know how my own car works anyway. Do you think I’m crazy?’

  He smiled. It was a good smile. ‘I’m the one who was sure he saw a fire that isn’t here. And smelled sausages.’ He sniffed again. ‘Smell that? They’re back again.’

  And so they were. She grinned at him. ‘There’s a meet-the-candidate do at the Town Hall tonight. Scarlett asked me to pick up Leafsong. Do you and Carol want to come too?’

  Boadicea would fit five, just. She’d need to go carefully over the ruts.

  ‘Fine by me. I’ll check with Carol. What time?’

  ‘I’ll pick you up at seven-thirty.’ The world seemed lighter. She could face Nicholas better with a small crowd of her own, not just Matilda, Nancy and the others who Nicholas knew well, but people like Leafsong and Carol who weren’t part of that crowd.

  ‘Come a bit earlier, while it’s still light. You can see the new ram.’

  They were going to raise sheep at the commune too?

  ‘Sure.’

  ‘Better still, come at six and have dinner. It’s pies tonight,’ he added with satisfaction.

  ‘I know,’ said Jed with a chuckle. ‘Scarlett said Leafsong made them in the Drinkwater kitchen.’

  Sam laughed. ‘I reckon an oven to use as often as she likes is even better than getting paid.’

  ‘You don’t have a proper oven yet?’

  ‘Only that wood-fired one. I still haven’t worked out a way to regulate the temperature.’

  ‘What did you make it from?’

  He grinned. ‘An old truck brake drum and legs from an iron bedstead. See you tonight.’

  The scent of sausages was stronger as he cycled off.

  Chapter 11

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, October 1972

  Where Next After the Snowy? by Jed Kelly

  At last the strength of the vast Snowy River has been harnessed to provide electricity. Men from all across the world came to work on it, from Greece, from Italy, from Yugoslavia, from Malta. Our nation owes those men for making possible one of the greatest engineering feats in the world.

  Yet now, when those strong, skilled, experienced workers try to get jobs in the city, they are discriminated against, and called reffos, wogs or dagos.

  A Whitlam government would make discrimination like this illegal. But it will also give us projects as great as the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

  Across Australia our minerals are exported with Australia receiving less than a cent per tonne in royalties. A Whitlam government will ensure that all Australians get a fair return for what are our minerals. It will ensure proper infrastructure: ports and railways that mean our mineral wealth can be developed, with the profits staying in Australia for all Australians instead of flowing overseas . . .

  JED

  Boadicea bumped slowly down the road to the commune, then more speedily along its track.

  JohnandAnnie still sat on the dome’s deck. Were they perhaps a living sculpture? And, good grief, it looked like the Annie part was pregnant again. The goats gazed at Jed from a well-fenced enclosure with the easy confidence of animals who know they can escape, but only when it is in their interests to do so.

  So why a ram?

  Both mud-walled cottages had survived winter’s rain. Thick solar panels sat on each roof, and other thinner ones too. Carol pedalled industriously in front of her cottage on what looked like a bicycle without wheels, while an old twenty-four-gallon drum churned behind her.

  Jed parked under a fledgling apple tree and hauled Scarlett’s wheelchair out of the luggage rack, then tactfully left Scarlett to make her own way to Leafsong and the outdoor kitchen as she climbed the hill to the cottages.

  ‘Hi,’ she said to Carol.

  Carol nodded, her sweaty face unwelcoming. She wore a sarong, bare feet and, an accidental peek confirmed, no underwear. Obviously not the clothes to wear to a meet-the-candidate gathering.

  Jed tried again. ‘Coming tonight?’

  Carol stopped pedalling. ‘Elections are a delusion of superficial change,’ she puffed.

  ‘I don’t understand.’

  Carol snorted, leaning against the handlebars. ‘What part of alternative lifestyle is hard to understand?’ Her gesture took in the gadget she sat on, the dome, the giant faded tent. Looking down the slope, Jed could see Scarlett talking excitedly to Leafsong as they made their way to the commune’s kitchen area outside the tent.

  ‘Don’t you see?’ said Carol fiercely. ‘Western society isn’t viable in the long term. We can’t keep consuming more every year, polluting the earth, cutting down forests, with humanity doubling every twenty years. One day resources will just run out. Society will crash.’

  Carol gestured again to the mud walls, the dome, the paddocks of fruit trees and vegetables. ‘Self-sufficiency isn’t just a personal choice. When society crashes, from war or ecological catastrophe or when the oil runs out, places like this will keep civilisation alive.’

  Jed glanced over at JohnandAnnie and Sunshine. ‘All seven of you?’

  ‘There’ll be more of us. There are places like Halfway to Eternity springing up around Australia. In the USA too, and in Germany and France. But we’re not just survivalists. This is a good way to live. A better way to live. Voluntary poverty, living simply because we want to. Showing you don’t need bourgeois capitalism to be happy. New cars, bigger houses, working at a crap job for forty years just to pay the mortgage on a crap house and a bigger TV set.’

  ‘I . . . see.’ Part of what Carol said made sense. But ‘voluntary poverty’ was all very well, as long as it was voluntary. She had been broke, starving, homeless. Her life had been simple, but it had most definitely not been voluntary. Nor was poverty voluntary for much of the world’s population.

  Carol, Leafsong, Sam and probably JohnandAnnie all came from well-off families. They had security bred in their bones. If Sunshine was ill, if Carol had an a
ccident, Jed would bet there were affluent relatives who’d come to the rescue. But saying that would only antagonise Carol further. Why didn’t Carol like her? She was likeable! Okay, her friends at school hadn’t liked her all that much, but Julieanne did.

  The door of the other mud cottage opened. Sam came out, dressed in a shirt and jeans, his beard freshly trimmed. With his ponytail neatly combed, he almost looked short-back-and-sides conservative. He’d evidently been listening to the conversation. He grinned at Jed. ‘It’s a heck of a lot more fulfilling to build your home with your own hands than to buy a lookalike suburban box. Every bit of these houses has memories. Even food has more meaning if you know how it was grown and cooked.’

  ‘Plus it’s fun,’ said Jed amicably. The mud cottages were like a grown-up version of cubby houses. Sam’s inventions were an adult’s Meccano set. Which was not a criticism. Her great-grandfather had made his fortune and helped win two wars playing with bits of wire, valves and the laws of physics. She nodded at the pedal contraption. ‘And what is this?’

  ‘A pedal-powered washing machine,’ said Sam proudly. ‘I found the . . .’

  Jed smiled as he described where each part had been scavenged. She waited till he’d finished. ‘But you didn’t make those solar panels.’

  Sam looked up at the panels with affection. ‘Nope. Had to import them — the hot-water ones as well as the photovoltaics.’

  ‘Photovoltaic?’

  ‘They generate electricity,’ said Carol, leaning on Sam’s arm.

  Sam didn’t move closer to her; neither did he move away. ‘The panels are enough to give us power for light and music, but not enough for big power consumers like irons and electric stoves and fridges. Not yet. Gas fridges and kerosene ones do exist though, and there’s no reason why they can’t be made in Australia. If enough people bought them, then it’d be cost effective. There’d be no need for coal-fired electricity plants polluting the world and losing forty per cent of their electricity as it runs along the wire system. But people won’t want solar panels till they’re cheap enough . . .’

 
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