If blood should stain th.., p.9

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle, page 9

 

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
 



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  And this wasn’t getting them to Nicholas’s introduction to Gibber’s Creek. ‘You promised me dinner before we went to the meeting,’ she said.

  Carol looked from Jed to Sam. ‘I may as well come,’ she said abruptly. ‘As long as I don’t have to change.’ The last was a challenge.

  ‘Don’t worry. No one will notice you,’ said Jed kindly.

  Sam bit back a snort of laughter. ‘Come and see the ram before dinner? It won’t take a minute.’

  ‘Yeah. Sure. I like animals.’

  This time it was Carol who laughed. ‘It’s not a sheep — it’s a pump! A hydraulic ram.’

  ‘I don’t understand.’

  ‘I’ll show you,’ said Sam easily. ‘It’s a fascinating concept.’

  ‘I’ll go and change,’ said Carol.

  Ha! thought Jed, raising a mental eyebrow, even if she couldn’t yet manage Matilda’s actual one. So Carol didn’t want to appear in public in a semi-decent sarong.

  Sam led the way along the hill to one of the concrete tanks. ‘See, this pipe uses gravity to fill the tank from further up the river. Though it wasn’t a tank originally — it used to be a pipe under one of the local roads. I found it and repaired it.’

  ‘How can gravity fill a tank?’

  ‘A syphon. Rivers flow downhill, even if the slope is only gradual. We’ve got nearly half a kilometre of polypipe from there to here. If the pipe is full of water, and one end is in the river, when the water flows out the lower end more water is sucked in at the top. And the water from the tank runs the ram pump.’ He turned a blue gate valve. Water rushed into a long metal pipe leading out of the concrete tank. Suddenly Jed heard a rhythmic clunk, clunk, clunk down by the river . . .

  ‘It sounds like a frog with the hiccups.’

  ‘Can you see it?’

  Jed nodded. The ram pump was a blue-painted oval bomb, with the metal pipe leading into it and the polypipe leading out of it, heading away up the hill.

  ‘The water pressure is enough to pump water even further uphill than the top of the syphon inlet. For every ten parts of water that flows into the hydraulic ram, one part is pumped up there.’ Sam pointed to another concrete tank, at the top of the hill, well above the dome and houses. ‘That means we can have decent water pressure without any electricity to pump it. And the ram pump is out of flood reach too.’

  ‘But a flood would sweep away your syphon inlet.’

  Sam gave her a patient look. ‘What do you do when there might be a flood?’

  ‘Well, nothing actually. But Nancy or Matilda tells one of the men to drag Dribble’s pump out of flood reach.’

  ‘So we just haul the pipe out of the river. Afterwards we pour water into the top of it, thrust it into the river again, and as the water flows out this end it sucks in more from the river. And keeps going and going for years.’

  ‘Until another flood.’

  ‘We don’t need to water during a flood anyway. Disappointed you haven’t seen a sheep?’

  ‘No,’ she assured him. ‘It’s fascinating. Where did you get the ram?’

  ‘Had to import it from England. They use hydraulic pumps in Wales. The technology has been around for ages. But ram pumps could be made in Australia too if —’

  ‘If there were enough demand,’ she finished for him.

  He grinned, supremely happy with his toys. ‘Yep. What’s the time?’

  ‘Yikes. Nearly seven. Where are the pies you promised for dinner?’

  The pies were chicken and leek — Jed suspected there was one less hen scratching under the fruit trees than there had been a few days ago — eaten sitting round the fireplace.

  ‘They’re perfect,’ said Jed sincerely. ‘You’re the most brilliant cook in the universe.’

  Leafsong flushed and shrugged. Jed gave her a two-thumbs-up sign, then blew her a kiss, exchanging gesture for gesture. She found Carol looking at her with almost approval.

  And in the end everyone went to the Town Hall. It was a bit like the old uni game of how many can fit in a telephone box, thought Jed dazedly, Boadicea’s sump arriving unscathed on the bitumen. Scarlett sat on Leafsong’s lap, cradling plates of food. Carol (now in green overalls with flowers embroidered on the knees, and plaited brown leather sandals, and her lovely long blonde hair well brushed) sat crammed on Sam’s lap, Annie was on John, and Sunshine on Annie, and Clifford clung on to the luggage rack next to the wheelchair.

  No police stopped them. Instead, it appeared, both local officers were already inside the Town Hall, the patrol car parked outside, along with an assortment of utes and cars from old Volkswagens to station wagons to Sam’s parents’ Renault. One young woman in a Driza-Bone and Akubra hat was even riding a horse down the main street, looking as if she had galloped in from the previous century.

  Everyone piled out and headed into the hall. Jed hesitated, her back to the car. The horse rider gave her a friendly wave as her mount ambled around the back of the Town Hall, where presumably there was still a place to tie a horse up, and water it.

  Jed stared at the light spilling from the Town Hall door. She didn’t want to go in there. Damn it! She had made a good life without Nicholas. Why did Matilda have to drag her into his life now? She didn’t mind doing articles for the Gazette. They were fun to write and, as Matilda insisted, this mattered. But to see him, probably have to talk to him. And meet Felicity.

  The wheelchair stopped beside her. Scarlett had come back. ‘You’ll be right,’ she said softly.

  Jed managed a grin. ‘Thanks, brat.’

  ‘You okay?’ Sam had returned too.

  ‘Yes,’ said Jed firmly.

  ‘You sure?’

  ‘Yes.’ But she was glad of Sam and Scarlett on either side of her as they climbed the ramp to the Town Hall — trust Nancy to make sure the Gibber’s Creek Town Hall and shops now had ramps as well as stairs. Scarlett and Sam were good bodyguards to have. And even better guards for her equilibrium.

  Chapter 12

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, October 1972

  It’s Time to Stop a Stink, by Jed Kelly

  Hands up those who remember catching yabbies in Gibber’s Creek?

  Hands up who’d eat those yabbies now?

  Thirty years ago Gibber’s Creek ran clear. Kids swam in it. Now it is a sludge of green algae as the wastewater from the houses built after the war flows into it.

  There are Sydney beaches where only the foolish swim, because if the tide is coming in, you may find yourself swimming next to whatever you flushed down the toilet the previous night. The waves leave muck on the beaches where children play. Muck breeds disease, from tummy bugs to hepatitis.

  A Whitlam government will have a new Department for Urban Planning. It will fund the building of sewerage systems across the country, so our creeks, our rivers and our beaches will again be clean enough for our kids to play in, not to mention fish and even platypuses.

  MATILDA

  Nicholas should, of course, have been introduced by the president of the local branch of the Labor Party. But Matilda had never been a member of any political party. As far as Matilda was concerned, she organised parties. She didn’t join them. And this event had been organised by her.

  Nor did anyone object as she climbed the stairs to the stage. She waited at its edge for a moment, leaning on her stick, gazing down. She had first seen this hall nearly eighty years before, lit by gas then, smelling of old sweat, tobacco and grog, full of drought-stained women and leather-skinned men lit by hope for the future.

  Could young Nicholas light that spark again?

  Probably not, though the young man looked presentable, if nervous, managing the artificial legs under his grey flannel trousers well, with only the aid of a walking stick. But with help from her and Jed and a hundred others, and the winds of change sweeping Australia . . . ? Maybe, perhaps.

  Would her father have been proud of his daughter, standing there to carry on his battle? She had known him for too short a time to find o
ut what he even felt about votes for women. But he had been a good man, an intelligent one. Yes, he would be proud.

  She walked across the stage, forcing her aged back erect, then took the microphone from its stand.

  It squealed at her, twice, then settled as someone fiddled with the controls.

  The faces stared at her. Today’s scents were aftershave and perfume and floor polish, and that of the red Drinkwater roses arranged in giant vases on either side of the stage. Men in moleskins and checked shirts, women in swirling psychedelic patterned maxis or mini skirts, girls in Indian dresses and beads or wide bell-bottom jeans and embroidered cheesecloth peasant tops, except for one man dressed in a white shirt and trousers, the only stranger in the room. How stupid to wear white when every car threw up dust.

  The man in white stood at the back of the hall, apart from the crowd. At first she thought he was staring at her, then realised his eyeline was lower. This man gazed at her family, standing below the stage.

  Well, my family is worth looking at, she thought, looking down at them proudly herself.

  ‘Grandma!’ yelled Clancy. He darted up the steps to join her, but was hauled back by his father.

  ‘Sshh. Grandma’s going to speak.’

  ‘I can speak,’ said Clancy.

  ‘Sshh.’ Michael lifted his son up to ride piggyback and Nancy followed his lead with Tom. Matilda nodded approvingly. The boys would be quiet now they had a better view.

  ‘Friends.’ The voices across the hall hushed at the sound of hers. Everyone had hushed for Mrs Matilda Thompson of Drinkwater for decades. But now, suddenly, she had no words. Only feelings, so deep her voice was buried in ghosts.

  Matilda lifted her chin. There was only one thing to do with ghosts.

  Welcome them.

  Let the ghosts give her speech then.

  ‘Friends,’ she heard her voice say again. ‘The first time I stood in this hall it was to hear a small shabby man talk of a giant notion: that the colonies of Australia should be united as one nation, a federation of states, a Commonwealth. A nation where every man, and even every woman, had the vote; where all could worship freely. I was twelve years old then, a child who slaved in a Sydney factory and never saw the sun.

  ‘A fortnight later I stood here for my father’s wake. My father, Jim O’Halloran, lost his life fighting for the rights of the working man. But men like my father never truly die. His ghost may be heard all around the nation he and his comrades built.

  ‘I can hear him now.’ And she could, so clearly that her voice broke and she had to gulp twice to speak again.

  ‘My father’s ghost says that what we won is not enough. Women and the Aboriginal people of our land might vote now. But across Australia women still slave for a pittance; their children go hungry; they die because there is no money for a doctor’s care. Our young men are drafted to fight an overseas war for a foreign country.’

  And suddenly she spoke for herself, staring at the faces. ‘My sons fought for their country and I was proud of them. But they volunteered. And that is how you fight a war: by loving your country and by serving it, not by being swept up unwillingly by a bureaucratic hand.

  ‘The young man who will speak to you after me fought in our army too, but not for this country’s safety and security, and not by choice. He, and you, must carry my father’s banner now. My father helped make this land a nation. May you, the voters of Australia, and Nicholas Brewster make our nation a great one — great hearted, prosperous and just. Ladies and gentlemen of Gibber’s Creek, I give you our next representative in federal parliament, Nicholas Brewster!’

  She stood, suddenly emptied, the words that had held her upright gone, as they cheered her. She felt the hall shudder as boots stamped the floor in approval.

  I am my father’s daughter, she thought. Finally, Dad, I have brought you home.

  She stood back as Nicholas limped across the stage. He smiled at her, then unexpectedly stooped to kiss her cheek. He took the microphone from her trembling hand.

  She found Michael, his hand suddenly in hers, leading her from the stage, her legs turned to custard, found Jed’s arm about her waist, helping her to a chair. Her grandsons snuggled under her arms on each side. Such a comfort in grandsons, she thought. How did old Yeats put it in his play? . . . But my sons have sons, as brave as were their fathers . . .

  Up on stage Nicholas smiled. ‘Men and women of Gibber’s Creek, I had a speech prepared.’ He held up sheets of paper. ‘I even had it memorised. Some of it was written by me, some by others.’ His eyes held Jed’s for perhaps two seconds too long. ‘But Mrs Thompson has said all that matters.

  ‘I was supposed to talk of serving my country. But I don’t know that I was a good soldier. I don’t know that I will make a good politician either. But I can promise you that I will serve you with every fibre of my being. The policies I offer you were not crafted by me, but by experts from across Australia. A Whitlam government will offer you free medical care for every person in our country, equal opportunity for every child to go to school, equal wages for women, and pensions set at twenty-five per cent of the male basic wage so that no man or woman who has laboured for this nation will wither, forgotten, in poverty in their old age. That is what I have to offer you tonight . . .’ His voice trailed off.

  He should have stuck to the speech, thought Matilda, as Nicholas added lamely, ‘Are there any questions?’

  Joseph McAlpine’s hand shot up. A prepared question, a Dorothy Dixer. ‘Can you tell us more about the Medibank scheme?’

  ‘Certainly.’ Nicholas’s voice was confident again now. ‘A commission will determine the fair fee for a doctor’s consultation. Doctors will bulk-bill the government. No one need pay anything at all for a visit to a doctor.’

  ‘But what if more people go to the doctor? Because it is free?’

  Matilda watched Nicholas smile. Another Dorothy Dixer. ‘I hope they will. Because it will mean they need medical help but currently can’t afford it. We need more doctors. A Whitlam government will also abolish university fees. For too long only the children of the rich could be doctors, or the very few who won a scholarship. Now a university education — including medicine — will be open to anyone who passes their final exams with sufficient marks . . .’

  More questions, not rehearsed ones now. But they were mostly good natured. This crowd was with him, wanted him to succeed. They had become one beast, united by words and dreams.

  Except the man in white at the back of the hall. Observing, not part of the questions. What was a stranger doing here? Matilda smiled at herself. It was the same outrage Maxi showed when a wonga pigeon dared to bob across the Drinkwater lawn.

  ‘What is the Labor Party policy on relations with our alien friends?’ asked Mrs Weaver, a joey peering from the hessian sack slung across her shoulder. The question drew Matilda back to the crowd.

  Nicholas looked only slightly astonished. But then he had written a book that featured alien enemies. ‘The Labor Party’s policy is to recognise all nations. Like China, which is a little too large to ignore . . .’

  Polite laughter. Mrs Weaver looked satisfied, even vindicated, perhaps assuming that the Labor Party had just acknowledged that the aliens existed.

  ‘What about the communist menace?’ Matilda jerked her head towards the speaker. Old Gyllson, from the Country Party MP’s office. She might have known.

  ‘What communist menace?’ asked Nicholas politely.

  Good answer, thought Matilda.

  ‘The one that is sweeping down from China through Vietnam and Malaya.’

  ‘I believe you mean Malaysia. The world has changed a little during the past twenty-three years of Coalition mismanagement, sir. Perhaps it is time to bring yourselves up to date with world affairs. But if Australia is ever threatened, you have my word I will fight to defend it,’ a slightly humorous glance to the trouser legs that all there must know hid his artificial legs, ‘with all that is left of me. You have a question, m
adam?’

  The right note, thought Matilda, satisfied. He was doing well. Not brilliantly. The old-timers had said her father could hold an audience so strongly they wouldn’t notice if a red dog bit them. But Nicholas was good enough. The right choice.

  Her chin nodded onto the black lace of her dress, in one of the dozes that attacked her lately. She woke to find Michael gently helping her up onto the stage again.

  Felicity now stood hand in hand with Nicholas. A pretty girl, the image of her grandmother, Flinty, brown haired, shy and far too young, much younger than Jed had been at the same age. But the girl smiled nervously as Nicholas’s other hand took Matilda’s.

  The piano began to play. Each voice in the hall rose on exactly the right beat:

  ‘Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong Under the shade of a coolabah tree . . .’

  So many voices. Her cheeks were cold with tears. She never sang that song. Michael joined them on the stage, half supporting her because she needed it; he was singing, as was Jim below, letting his younger brother, who lived there, represent the family tonight. Jed was singing, Nancy, Scarlett, Moira . . .

  ‘. . . And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.’

  It was done.

  Chapter 13

  Gibber’s Creek Gazette, October 1972

  Save Our Sons, by Jed Kelly

  They are ordinary women. Some wear twinsets and pearls, others pantsuits or slacks. They come from all walks of life, for one cause.

  To save their sons from conscription, to fight another country’s war. To save other women’s sons, because these women have seen their own sons come back, wounded, or ill from breathing in Agent Orange, the herbicide sprayed across South Vietnam to kill the forests — and the paddy fields on which the villagers depend for their rice — that otherwise might shelter the enemy Viet Cong from sight.

 

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