Jacaranda Plains

Chapter One

"And he sees the vision splendid,
Of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wondrous glory
Of the everlasting stars"

Banjo Paterson ~ "Clancy of the Overflow"

“Oh no, not again!”

Jemimah Parker blinked back tears of frustration at the sight of yet another closed farm gate. Obviously this wasn’t the right road either.

Willing herself not to panic, Jemimah put her old Datsun into reverse and eventually executed a nine-point turn across the narrow dirt road. Her neck and shoulders ached with tension as she rattled across a cattlegrid and began heading back the way she’d just come.

After finally admitting she was hopelessly lost nearly half an hour ago, Jemimah had abandoned her hope of getting to church that morning and would have been content just to find the main road back into town. But even that continued to elude her as she found herself following one dead end after another.

As she neared the intersection, Jemimah peered through the bug-splattered windscreen and tried to distinguish any kind of landmark. Red dust from the road stung her eyes, but with the temperature inside her car already well over forty degrees Celsius it would have been unbearable with the windows closed.

“Which way now, Lord?”

Nondescript fields stretched forever in every direction and to Jemimah’s eyes the fringes of scrubby bush looked like ugly stubble on a dirty face. These were not the rolling green hills of her imagination she’d consoled herself with when facing her move out to the country.

When she'd finally reached Jacaranda Plains late the previous afternoon, Jemimah had understood easily why this part of North-West New South Wales had been described to her as “Big Sky Country”, but she was still in no state of mind to appreciate the way the uninterrupted expanse of brilliant blue made everything beneath seem insignificant.

The very vastness made her feel desolate and alone, and the knowledge that she didn't know a living soul within at least several hundred kilometres terrified her. Why did they ever think she could do this?

Turning the car in what she hoped was the right direction, Jemimah tried to remind herself that she wasn't truly alone, and that God was just as able to help her as if she were still safely at home with her parents back in the city she'd grown up in. “Be strong and courageous . . .I will never leave you nor forsake you,” she began repeating to herself.

She glanced in the rear-view mirror, flustered when she thought she recognised a stand of tall, gnarled gum trees just beyond the intersection behind her. They looked familiar . . . if she'd passed them before, then maybe that was the way she had come from.

Oh no, am I going in the wrong direction again? . . .

Jemimah returned her gaze to the road ahead - just in time to see a huge pothole only metres in front of the car.

Reacting in panic she pushed her brake pedal to the floor and jerked the steering wheel hard to the right, hoping desperately to miss the gaping hole. The wheels locked and lost traction on the loose surface, and Jemimah clung to the steering wheel in white-knuckled terror, the car skidding sideways along the road. With a bang like a gunshot the rear left tyre exploded as it slammed into the jagged rim of the pothole and jolted back out of the other side.

Jemimah was trembling uncontrollably by the time the car finally slid to a stop another fifty metres up the road. Clouds of red dirt billowed around her and blinded her eyes, and for a few minutes she could barely breathe without choking in the dusty air.

Feeling anything other than strong and courageous, she slumped over the steering wheel, no longer trying to hold back her tears. Although she was unhurt, the tension and anxiety that had been building for the past two weeks finally overwhelmed her and she sat in her seat and sobbed.

After her long trip the day before, and a sleepless night in a strange bed, Jemimah was mentally and physically exhausted. She'd prayed about the move, she'd trusted in God and tried her best - but there was no way she could cope with this . . .

The last thing Jemimah had anticipated when she finished the final exams of her teaching degree last year was to be one of the top few students “targeted” for an immediate permanent teaching position. She had fully expected to spend the next few years teaching in casual relief positions around Newcastle, and being posted to a remote two teacher school like Jacaranda Plains had certainly never crossed her mind.

The younger of two daughters in a close-knit family, Jemimah had never felt the need to develop or test her independence in any way. She shared the same Christian faith and quiet lifestyle as her parents, and would have been perfectly content to remain at home with them indefinitely, or - as she most deeply wished - until she moved out to marry a godly man like her sister had just over a year ago.

Jemimah mopped at her face with a tissue as her tears continued to flow. It wasn’t that she was jealous of Keren and John, but seeing the joy that they had found in each other made her more painfully aware of the ache for a soul-mate within her own heart. It wasn’t so bad while she still had the security of her family and her church, but now she was out here, it was unbearable to think of how alone she truly was . . .

A pang of guilt struck Jemimah - dragging her back from her homesick thoughts to the present. What did it say of her faith in God to be sitting there sobbing as if the world was ending? A verse from Isaiah came into her mind, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Deliberately forcing herself to calm down, she sat back in her seat, reminding herself of God’s constant presence and gradually became aware of the calmness of the world around her. The red dust had settled in a thin film across the dashboard, and the stillness of roadside had not been perturbed in the least by her outpouring of emotions. The car had stopped in the shade of a huge old gum tree, and above her in its branches she saw a kingfisher lethargically preening its shimmering feathers.

Jemimah managed a wry smile as she realised her that her little crisis had had no tangible impact on the world at large. Yes, she was stuck in the middle of nowhere - but there was no emergency - everything was still okay. And since for the first time her parents weren't there to solve everything, it was probably time she started acting like a grown-up and try to sort things out for herself.

After grabbing her hat and reapplying the sunscreen she always kept with her, she walked around to the back of the car, her skin tingling in the heat. The sun was nearing its zenith in the cloudless blue dome and the heated air smelled of eucalypts and burnt rubber as she stood shaking her head at the ruptured tyre. Even if there had been any mobile phone coverage beyond the township, Jemimah doubted that there would have been a branch of her automobile club in a place the size of Willow Creek. Getting back into town was going to be up to her, and how hard could changing a tyre really be?

Nearly three quarters of an hour later, Jemimah had discovered that it was harder than she possibly could have imagined. Even trying to crouch beside the car to use the jack had been nearly impossible – when the back seam of her long linen shift began to rip she had given in and kicked off her shoes and knelt down in the dirt. She could still taste the blood in her mouth from biting her lip when she’d had to lean her whole weight over the handle of the jack to force the wheel nuts loose, and by the time she’d gotten the wheel off, most of her nails were broken and every knuckled grazed.

She wiped the sweat from her face with the back of a greasy hand and returned to the boot of the car to retrieve the spare wheel. Her heart stopped for a moment until she remembered where it lay under a false bottom in the floor but her relief in finding it was short lived when she tried lifting it out of the boot. The sheer weight of it surprised her, and her arms felt like lead when she'd eventually managed to get it out onto the road.

Jemimah was miserably aware of the filthy marks staining her brand new dress as she braced the tyre against herself and lifted it onto the axle, but forced herself not to think about it. She wasn’t going to be meeting anyone at church today after all, and the only thing that mattered now was getting herself back into town. Although she tried not to think about it, Jemimah felt very vulnerable stranded and alone out here in the bush.

When she finally tightened the last of the wheel nuts, Jemimah enjoyed feeling a novel sense of triumph. It lasted for the few moments it took until she realised that although the tyre was changed she was right back where she had started. Just as lost, and still with no idea which road or even which direction led back into town.

Unwelcome tears began to fill her eyes again, and Jemimah battled to stay calm. She closed her eyes and prayed that God again would strengthen her - and somehow get her “home” to the safety of her rented flat.

When she opened her eyes, Jemimah noticed something had changed in the road far ahead of her - a cloud of red dust was emerging in the distance. As she squinted into the glare she could make out the form of a white vehicle, and it was heading in her direction.

Michael Turnbull glanced up from the Bible passage he was reading aloud and scanned the faces of the congregation. With a pang of disappointment he noticed while some were still following the reading in their own Bibles, most of the people seemed distracted.

A little disheartened, the young man returned his attention to the verses in front of him and read out the last few verses of the passage. As he finished he could now clearly hear the sound of a diesel motor approaching and realised that this was the distraction that had captured the attention of his listeners.

Accepting that he could not compete with the curiosity of the congregation, Michael stood silent in the pulpit. Within moments all eyes were fixed guiltily on him - the sudden quietness bringing the people to the realisation that they had been caught out in their wandering thoughts.

He smiled warmly at the people looking up at him, “Well, that sounds like Mr Hart’s Landcruiser, so we might as well wait to make sure everything’s okay before we continue.”

While a preacher in a city church might have been annoyed at the apparent lack of discipline on the part of the congregation, Michael appreciated the genuine concern that motivated their interest. After the new school teacher, Jemimah Parker had arrived in town last night, she’d rung the pastor’s home and checked on the service times and directions to the church. She’d also mentioned that she had travelled on the Saturday especially so that she could be there for all the Sunday meetings.

When there was no sign of the new teacher half an hour after the service had begun Michael had instinctively become so uneasy that he suggested that Ted Hart, one of the deacons, try the road leading back into town in case the young lady had run into trouble. Now the congregation was eagerly awaiting his return to know the outcome.

As the Landcruiser came closer, Michael was relieved to discern the whine of a second, smaller motor as well - the young lady must be okay, perhaps she had just become lost on the unfamiliar roads.

As one body, all heads in the congregation turned towards the back door as both vehicles crunched to a stop on the gravel outside. Kind of like awaiting the arrival of a bride at a wedding, Michael mused.

In such a small town outsiders were rare, and any newcomer was a great novelty and source of curiosity to the community. The new schoolteacher had been eagerly anticipated by the whole town, but by this church in particular. As a number of their families had children in the school, they were thrilled when they learned that the replacement teacher was a Christian, and that she intended to be joining their church when she arrived.

From his vantage point in the pulpit, Michael was the only one with a clear view through the high windows to the car park that ran right beside the church, and he watched with interest for his first glimpse of the new addition to their number. Ted Hart climbed down from his vehicle and headed towards the old mustard Datsun that had pulled up behind him. A very small, very slight, girlish figure emerged from the Datsun as Ted held open her door.

Michael wasn’t sure what surprised him most about his first sight of Jemimah Parker; how tiny and fragile she looked, or how incredibly white her skin was. His overwhelming impression was that of a porcelain doll - in the blazing sunlight her skin was so pale that it appeared translucent, and her frame so delicate that she appeared as fragile as bone china.

She was wearing a sleeveless linen dress, which skimmed her slender frame to her ankles, and fair blonde curls spilled out from beneath a wide brimmed straw hat.

The young lady turned towards the church and Michael drew in his breath sharply with sudden concern. Dirt and grease were smeared over her face and bare arms, and the front of her dress was crumpled and dirty. The knuckles on her right hand were grazed and bleeding, and her sky blue eyes were red and swollen as though she had been crying.

Michael’s stomach lurched sickeningly as he wondered what could have happened to her. Resisting a sudden instinct to leave the pulpit and go straight out to help her, he quickly glanced down at his two sisters sitting in the front row.

Catching the eye of the youngest, Angie, he nodded in the direction of the car park. Understanding his request for her to go out to the young lady, Angie quickly slipped out of her seat and headed towards the door, and Michael returned his anxious gaze to the window.

Jemimah couldn’t believe the absolute silence when she climbed out of her car and stood beside the church with Ted Hart. It was just past midday, and not even the shrill of a cicada disturbed the eerie stillness. It was as if nature itself was too overwhelmed by the searing heat even utter a sound.

The quietness only magnified the storybook effect of the little church - the white wooden building with its steeply pitched tin roof stood alone like a monument to the Creator amidst endless grazing land. Sunflowers grew wildly around the white picket fence that marked it off from the surrounding fields, and a cluster of towering gum trees threw speckled shadows across the yard.

The building itself was simple, three stone steps leading to a large arch shaped wooden door wide open at the entrance, and several arched windows opened along both sides of the church. Not a sound came from any of those windows and Jemimah found it hard to believe there was anyone inside, let alone the number of people indicated by the collection of utes, four wheel drives and sedans parked in the yard.

Jemimah estimated that the service should be finishing soon - and hoped to wait outside and then slip away quietly as soon as she’d met the pastor and thanked him for sending Ted Hart to her rescue. When Ted had met her on the road just as she’d finished tightening the last wheel nuts, her only desire had been to get directions back to town and go home to her flat for a cool shower and a long rest.

Ted Hart, however, turned out to be a man of few words and had barely given Jemimah the chance to say how much she appreciated his coming for her, before taking the socket from her hand and checking the wheel nuts for himself. After replacing the ruined tyre and the tools to her boot, he had simply assumed that she would be following him into church and got back into his four wheel drive without waiting for an answer.

Jemimah felt that after all the trouble Ted had taken to find her and bring her safely to church, it would insult him to refuse, so she followed on, despite feeling completely unequal to meeting anyone else. And at least now she did know where the church was for next week services.

She looked up as she saw a girl about her own age emerging from the door of the church, and walking over to her with long, confident strides. Her sleek brown hair, cut into a precise bob, glowed in the sunshine with an unnatural reddish tint and the navy dress and heeled sandals she wore looked like they were from the pages of a fashion magazine. Just the kind of sophisticated young woman she was completely daunted by, thought Jemimah unhappily, and took a deep breath as she watched her approach.

“You must be Jemimah Parker,” the girl began, and Jemimah felt tremendously relieved to see genuine warmth and interest expressed in her perfectly made-up face, “I’m Angie Turnbull – you rang my home last night about the services.”

Jemimah nodded, thinking quickly. The woman she had spoken to on the phone had sounded at least middle aged, so if that had been the pastor's wife, Angie must be her daughter.

“What happened - are you okay?” Angie demanded sharply as she took in Jemimah’s grazed skin and soiled clothes.

“Thank you, but I’m fine – really,” Jemimah apologized in a tiny voice, imagining how she must look to this confident girl, “I’m so sorry to have caused such trouble . . . . I just had some difficulty changing a tyre. It’s . . . it’s not something I’ve ever done before.”

Angie nodded in understanding, but when Jemimah realised that she was expecting her to follow her into the church she added quickly, “But please go back inside until the service is finished . . . I’ll just wait out here so I don’t interrupt any further.”

The other girl smiled apologetically. “Actually, everyone is just waiting to see if you are okay - the service is on hold so to speak. So you’d better come inside too, so then we can all continue with the meeting.”

“Sure,” Jemimah murmured quietly, as her stomach knotted into a hard ball. The thought of entering the building full of people, and meeting all the enquiring faces was so overwhelming that she felt very ill.

She had taken such trouble over her appearance that morning, so that despite her shyness and youthful appearance she might make a reasonable first impression on the people who would be trusting her with their children this year. To turn up in such a miserable and dishevelled state in the middle of the service was her worst nightmare.

Blinking back tears of fear and embarrassment, Jemimah meekly followed Angie in through the door. The back pews were taken up with families with little children, so she had no option but follow Angie up the centre aisle to the very front of the church.

Although she kept her eyes to the ground, focussing on the polished floor boards which resounded with their every footstep, Jemimah was painfully aware of the curious attention of every person in the building. And she was just as painfully aware from her burning face, that she was blushing as red as scarlet.

Just as she reached the front she heard heavy footsteps at the door as Ted Hart entered just behind them.

“Flat tyre,” his rough voice boomed in a simple explanation. “Changed by the time I got there.”

A pleased murmur rippled through the congregation, obviously satisfied by his short account. As Jemimah took her seat with her gaze still to the floor, she heard someone behind the pulpit clear his throat loudly.

“Now that the lost sheep has been gathered to the flock,” a deep voice said kindly but firmly, “let us return our attention to the Word of God.”

Jemimah’s eyes flew up the pulpit in horror, a whole new fear gripping her as she saw that the preacher was only a young man who couldn’t possibly be past his late twenties. There had to be some mistake – surely he could not be Pastor Michael Turnbull, on whom she was depending for so much . . .

© R. L. Brown 2005

Eos Development