Jacaranda Plains

Chapter Two

"And the bush has friends to meet him,
And their kindly voices greet him,
In the murmur of the breezes
and the river on its bars,"

Banjo Paterson ~ "Clancy of the Overflow"

Her mouth suddenly dry with fear that she’d made some dreadful mistake, Jemimah stared at the young man in front of her.

He was obviously at home in the pulpit and his amber eyes rested warmly on the congregation while they turned looked up the scripture reference he’d just mentioned. Despite the heat, he was wearing tailored navy suit trousers and a long sleeved shirt and tie, although the sleeves of the chambray-blue shirt were rolled to the elbows.

He reminded Jemimah of the black-and-white photos of her father and his friends taken in their twenties, with their conservative short-back-and-sides haircuts and clean-cut faces. But this man was much younger than her father and his contemporaries. Far too young.

Jemimah felt her eyes brimming with tears again - pathetically aware how much she’d depended on having the expectation of mature pastor who would take her under his wing. Hadn’t that been what her own pastor had reassured her? That the pastor of the church at Jacaranda Plains was an old friend of his, and he’d phoned him to discuss Jemimah’s proposed move to his church? Knowing there was someone who was prepared to be like a father to her had been the deciding factor in her leaving home - could she have somehow misunderstood something so important?

Glancing up from the passage he was reading, the speaker’s eyes met her own. Mortified that she’d not even registered the scripture reference, much less picked up the pew Bible, Jemimah quickly looked down at the floor, feeling more wretched and alone than ever.

She was far too distracted to even attempt to follow what remained of the sermon, but the voice of the speaker arrested her. With the deep tone and rich resonance of a professional newsreader or radio announcer, the preacher’s words carried a quiet authority and seemed to fill the church effortlessly. It was the kind of voice she would have expected to hear from the lectern of a cathedral and it seemed almost incongruous emanating from the wooden pulpit in this tiny church hall in the middle of nowhere.

Maybe that was it! Surely this young man wasn’t the pastor here at all but simply a visiting preacher.

Relief washed over Jemimah in warm waves as she realised that Michael Turnbull was probably one of the older men she’d passed on her way into her seat, and she had been panicking over nothing. As soon as the service ended she was sure he’d make himself known to her, and she could be on her way back to town.

Her mind settled, Jemimah sat back in her seat and had even begun to relax slightly by the time the last hymn was announced.

A dark haired young woman at the piano played the opening chords of the hymn, and the congregation stood as they joined in worship. Although she was still too nervous to sing aloud, Jemimah felt buoyed by the flow of voices all around her,

“Blessed be the tie that binds,
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.”

Everyone sang heartily and in close harmony - and although the hymn was very familiar, Jemimah found an assurance in the words she had never understood before. Even though the people around her were all strangers, they shared her love for Christ and despite her fearfulness she was reminded that she could count on being welcome among them.

After the Benediction was given, Jemimah quietly sat down, appreciating the contemplative silence of the rest of the congregation.

“Dear Lord,” she prayed silently, “please help me to glorify you by trusting in you here today, that I might overcome my terrible dread of meeting all these people. If it truly is your will for me to be here, then help me to accept this situation you’ve given me even though it all seems too hard for me.”

As she consciously leaned on her God, into her mind came the words of Christ from the end of Matthew’s gospel, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Jemimah mightn’t have been trying to fulfil the Great Commission right there and then, but she certainly felt as though she had gone to the ends of the earth . . . .

After a few minutes quiet conversation began in the pews behind her and people began to gather their belongings and move towards the door.

“Come on,” Angie stood up briskly, “it’s much cooler outside. We usually go straight out after the service and chat outside in the shade.”

The two girls joined the exodus to the door, where the young man who had led the service was greeting people as they left the building. Angie paused at the doorway until the elderly couple in front of them had finished speaking with him and descended the steps.

“This is my brother, Michael Turnbull,” Angie said as he turned around to face them, “And Michael, I’m sure you’ve guessed that this is Jemimah Parker.”

For the second time that morning Jemimah stared at him in absolute dismay. No -- it couldn’t be him.

“You’re . . . you’re Michael Turnbull?”

“Yes, I am Michael Turnbull,” he replied, a touch of laughter in voice, “But I’ve never seen someone so disappointed to meet me before.”

Jemimah’s hand flew to her mouth as she realised how obvious her reaction had been.

“I’m so sorry,” she stammered, wishing the ground would swallow her, “It’s just . . I’m . .I’m really confused. My pastor Bruce Edmonds said he went to Theological College with you - and well, he’s in his fifties . . . and . . .”

“Oh, I see!” Michael cut her off, smiling, “My dad is also Michael Turnbull - he is the pastor here, and he is the man that your pastor knows. Hang on - come outside and I’ll explain what happened this morning. I had forgotten that coming in late you wouldn’t have had any idea.”

Grateful for the opportunity to regain her composure, Jemimah followed him down the steps, taking a seat beside Angie on a bench beneath the shady trees. Michael remained standing beside his sister and despite him being several years older the similarities between the siblings were obvious. Both had the same firm jaw line and smattering of freckles across a sun-tanned complexion. They shared a solid athletic build, which although it made Angie look bulky in her slim fitting clothes, suited her brother’s extra height and broader shoulders.

“As I was saying,” Michael resumed his explanation to Jemimah, “My dad is actually the pastor of this church. But this morning when he got out of bed he discovered that he’d come down with chicken pox. My cousins and their children stayed with us a week ago - and the children all came out with spots just after they arrived back home. Apparently Dad has never had the chicken pox either.” Michael paused as another young lady joined them, handing Jemimah a plastic cup filled with iced water, which she took gratefully.

“Jemimah, this is my other sister, Gabi,” he introduced the slender young lady beside him. Gabi was much fairer than her siblings, and unlike them her eyes were green and her hair dark blonde. She wore no makeup and her face was plain, but her features were so even and flawless that Jemimah thought her incredibly beautiful. She was about the same height as Angie, although Jemimah guessed her to be a few years older.

“I was just explaining about this morning,” Michael told Gabi before continuing, “Dad came through to us at breakfast and was truly a sorry sight. But he put his hand on my shoulder, and solemnly commanded, “Son, there will be hungry people at the meeting this morning. Surely after all this studying you’ve got at least one sermon ready for emergencies. You feed them for me!”"

Michael’s sisters laughed at his loving impersonation of their father as he went on. “So, it was only a last minute exchange. But I needn’t have worried about what to preach about - the congregation was much more interested in what had become of their new teacher than anything I had to say. Mr Hart said you hit a pothole - but when I first saw you I was frightened that it had been a whole lot worse than that.”

“Yes . . . that’s all . . . ” Jemimah answered quietly, her cheeks burning with embarrassment under his attentive gaze, “It was . . . quite a struggle . . . to change it.”

Jemimah could hear the tremor in her own voice, and knew that if she didn’t somehow keep her tears from starting, she would not be able to stop them. She looked down quickly, blinking hard. Meeting all these new people would have been difficult enough in the best circumstances, but now, looking like this, and feeling so drained - it was almost more than she could bear.

When Jemimah glanced up a moment later, she was relieved to see an elderly woman had begun talking to Michael and Angie about their father, and their attention was momentarily diverted from her. She stood up, planning to slip away quietly, but before she had a chance to move, a soft arm was wrapped around her shoulders.

Jemimah turned to see a woman with thick waves of silvery hair and a round face, pink with the heat, smiling down at her.

“Hello, Darling. I’m Gwen Hart, Ted’s wife. He says you’ve had a rough time this morning.”

Not trusting her voice to answer, Jemimah merely nodded, and found herself drawn into Mrs Hart’s generous bosom like a little chicken gathered under the mother hen’s wings.

“I reckon it’s about time we got you out of this heat, then. You’re not used to it and that’s for sure. We’ve left the cooler on at home, so it will be quite pleasant inside.”

The woman turned to Gabi, who was still standing beside Jemimah. “Gabi, why don’t you drive Jemimah over to our place in your car - she can leave her car here and we’ll drop her back afterwards. Our road’s a bit rough at the moment - and I think Jemimah could do with a bit of a rest on the way rather than drive herself.” She gave Jemimah’s shoulders a friendly squeeze before turning away.

“That would be fine,” Gabi nodded, “If that’s okay with you, Jemimah? It’s just over half an hour from here - it might be easier if I drive you.”

Jemimah’s heart began to pound as saw Mrs Hart already walking away from them, having taken both girls acceptance for granted. She wanted to call out to her and explain that she just wanted to escape from all these unfamiliar people and go back to her flat and rest quietly - but simply didn’t have the energy or confidence to resist.

Jemimah thought of making her excuses to the quiet girl beside her and just leaving now, but knew she couldn’t find her way back to her unit in town without help. With an uneasy heart she decided the simplest thing was to accept Mrs Hart’s offer and figure out how to cope with the rest of the day once she got there.

“Yes, thank you, Gabi,” she murmured, hoping she’d somehow survive the coming ordeal, “I’d really appreciate that.”

Gabi met her eyes with a knowing smile, and after a brief farewell to Angie, the two girls followed like little chickens in Mrs Hart’s waddling wake.

“What are the dogs fussing over? Hope it’s not another snake.”

Pulled up short by Angie’s sharp tone, Michael stopped mid-stride toward the front door. He’d been so deep in his own thoughts about the shy young lady he’d just met, he hadn’t even noticed their two cattle dogs yapping excitedly in the corner of the verandah, noses snuffling behind a planter box.

“Aspro! Flash! What are you two up to now?” Crossing the pavers in two long steps, he bent down between the wagging tails to see his grandmother’s ginger kitten cowering in the corner.

“Girls! Leave the little fella be,” Michael elbowed the grinning dogs aside, and scooped up the tiny bundle, “he doesn’t know you’re just wanting to play.”

The kitten was trembling pitifully in his hand, and he paused to stroke its soft fur, crooning soothingly. “They were just being friendly, you know. They weren’t going to hurt you.”

Michael nestled the kitten into the crook of his arm and followed Angie inside, keen to tell his father and grandmother all about the new arrival to Jacaranda Plains.

“How’s the patient?” he called out as he headed through to the living room. With all the doors and windows open and the evaporative cooler running, the house was refreshingly cool after the scorching heat outdoors.

“Bearing up as best I can under the circumstances,” a grim voice replied from around the corner. Michael had to bite his lip when he caught sight of his conservative father sitting in front of the fan, wearing only old shorts and liberally covered in pink calamine lotion. But when Angie entered the room a few moments later she knew no such compunction and burst into laughter.

“As if I wasn’t suffering enough already without you two adding to it,” Pastor Turbull scowled at them. “I can’t imagine anything less dignified than coming down with chicken pox during a heatwave, and at this stage of my life.”

“No, Dad - I can tell you it was a far greater indignity when we got them in our teens,” Angie told him cheerfully. “Although you didn’t seem to see what all the fuss was about.”

“Yes, what was it you said to us then?” Michael sat down in the rocking chair, settling the kitten on his lap, “Something along the lines of no temptation has seized you that is not common to man . . . .”

“Oh, no - how I wish I’d been more sympathetic to you all then!” Pastor Turnbull groaned, “I have the feeling you are really going to make me suffer.”

Angie chuckled. “No, need to worry Dad. You’re going to be in capable hands. Mrs Sainsbury has promised to call in with one of her famous home remedies as soon as she can.”

“Please tell me she’s joking,” Pastor Turnbull cast appealing eyes at Michael, but he shook his head gravely. The kitten had climbed down to the carpet and gingerly approached Pastor Turnbull’s bare legs - and took one curious sniff of the calamine lotion before disappearing like a shot underneath the lounge.

This was too much for even Michael’s self control and he was still wiping his eyes when his grandmother came into the room to see what all the laughter was about, her worn denim jeans and t-shirt splattered pink with calamine lotion. Although she was in her early seventies and her short hair snowy white, June Turnbull was more vibrant and lively than many women Michael knew who were twenty years her junior.

He met her inquisitive look with a smile, and explained about the kitten’s reaction. “You certainly used enough of the stuff, Nan.”

“Your father wouldn’t stop complaining about the itching, and he did insist I do a thorough job.” Nan’s voice was serious but the twinkle in her faded blue eyes betrayed her, “Besides, I thought I’d better do something useful since I stayed home this morning to nurse him. So, how did church go - and what is our new Jemimah Parker like?”

“It’s actually quite a tale,” Michael started, keen to share his impressions with Nan and his father.

“In that case let’s save it until we’re eating,” Nan decided. “I think we’d better have lunch in here, since I’ve already got that couch covered with an old sheet and I don’t want your Dad spreading that calamine lotion all through the house. Mikey, if you’ll pull the coffee table over by your Dad, and set the cutlery there, I’ll get Angie to help me bring in the dishes from the kitchen.”

A few minutes later, after grace had been said and the family had settled back with their plates on their laps, Michael finally began his story.

“We very nearly didn’t meet your young Miss Parker this morning. By about half past eleven when there was still no sign of her and I was about to begin the sermon, I had a real feeling of cold dread about where she could be.”

“Especially since I talked to her on the phone last night and she confirmed that she was definitely coming,” added Angie.

“I kept thinking, ‘What would Dad do?’ --”

Angie cut in again. “And you know what our church is like when there is something going on. Michael had announced at the beginning of the service that we were expecting the new teacher, so everyone was whispering and fidgeting and looking at the door, until he asked Ted Hart if he’d mind driving the road back into town just to check if Jemimah had run into any problems.”

Pastor Turnbull nodded. “Yes, that’s probably what I would have done too.”

Michael had taken the chance to make a start on his lunch during Angie’s interruption and finished his mouthful before continuing. “This tastes really great, Nan. It’s a strange coincidence that you made roast chicken today of all days.”

Nan laughed, her fork halfway to her mouth. “Yes, what a coincidence - for some reason I just kept thinking about chicken . . .”

“Yes, very funny,” Pastor Turnbull replied. “How about you forget the humour and get on with your story, Michael.”

“Well, you can imagine with all that going on the congregation was not particularly interested in the sermon, so I don’t think you could call my preaching a success by any means.”

“Oh, no Michael,” Angie exclaimed, “you were great! Especially when everyone was distracted because we could hear Ted’s Land Cruiser coming back. Michael just stopped dead in the middle of what he was saying, and it was like a bomb going off - everyone felt really guilty about having been daydreaming. The kind of dread you feel when the teacher catches you passing notes in class.”

“See what I mean? All those hours labouring to prepare something spiritually edifying and the only part which made an impact on Angie was when I stopped speaking.”

“Hey, I remember the rest of it too!” she retorted, giving her Dad a brief outline of Michael’s main points.

“Okay, sweetheart, you’ve redeemed yourself - I believe you were listening, And you must have done okay Michael, if even your sister can remember it so well,” Pastor Turnbull said. “Now, go on Michael - I think you’re both deliberately keeping us in suspense.”

“Yes, what had happened to Jemimah?”

“Apparently she hit that bad pothole just outside Cox’s and burst her tyre. She’d just managed to change it by the time Ted got there and took her back into church.”

“But what was she doing out by Cox’s?” Nan queried him. “That’s well north of the church.”

Angie rolled her eyes. “Jemimah didn’t say - but I got the impression she’d been driving around lost for ages. I don’t think she’d have made it to church flat tyre or not.”

“And was she okay when she got to church?” Pastor Turnbull enquired with concern.

“She said so - but she certainly didn’t look it.” Michael shook his head, frowning at the image in his memory, “I nearly died when I first saw her get out of the car - she was covered in grease and red road dust, she looked more like she’d been run down by a car than just changed its tyre. But I don’t know how she managed it by herself - she’s the tiniest little thing I’ve ever seen.”

“What do you mean?” Nan had stopped eating to look at him closely.

“She almost didn’t seem real, Nan - she looks just like one of your porcelain dolls, with blonde little girl curls and her eyes are the most impossible blue. Even her skin is so pale that she looks like she’s made of china.” Michael struggled to put the vivid image into words, “She was standing beside Ted Hart when I first saw her - the top of her head was only just up to his chest, she’s maybe, 4 foot 10 or 11, and not even the width of one of his legs.”

He paused remembering the strong contrast between the young woman and the massive farmer - it was as though a storybook fairy had gotten into the wrong tale and ended up standing beside the giant at the top of the beanstalk.

“This just doesn’t seem like the kind of place that a young lady like her should be. . .”

I don’t think she’ll last a week!” said Angie.

“Not with that kind of encouragement anyway,” her father chided. “I hope you made her feel welcome.”

“I certainly did! I went straight out to Jemimah when she arrived, but I don’t think she really wanted to come into church. She looked exhausted, and I’m sure she’d been crying. She only looks about 16, and a very young sixteen at that. There is no way that she’ll manage the kids at school.”

“Be fair, Angie,” Michael glared at her. “She’s obviously handled classes well enough if she’s gotten her appointment. And not only that, she would have had to be one of the very top graduates to get sent straight out here with an immediate placement. I didn’t even achieve that when I was at uni - and you know how hard I worked.”

“Did you get to talk to her Michael?” Pastor Turnbull asked.

“Just briefly. It really threw her when Angie introduced me - she of course assumed from our names being the same that I was you - and I certainly wasn’t what she expected. But I didn’t have much of a chance to talk to her, and she seemed very shy.”

“Yes, Jemimah’s pastor, Bruce Edmonds told me that she was a very quiet and reserved young lady. I got the impression that she’s had a pretty sheltered upbringing. It’s such a shame that I came down with this today.”

He sighed, exasperated with his situation. “I promised Bruce that I’d take her under my wing when she arrived - I’d hoped to bring her back here for the day to get to know us, so that there would be somewhere she could feel at home here in Jacaranda Plains. I suppose next week will have to be soon enough.”

“I hope someone has taken her home for lunch?” Nan looked at Michael and Angie.

“Mrs Hart steamrolled her into going to lunch at her place before anyone else had half a chance,” Angie explained. “That woman sees a young lady and stakes her claim on her as a potential daughter-in-law before anyone else has even had a chance to introduce themselves! It’s disgusting!”

“No, it’s not - good on her!” Nan countered firmly, “It’s a caring mother who brings home young Christian ladies to meet her sons. I should follow her example and take a bit more assertive action myself if I’m going to see you two married before I shuffle off this mortal coil!”

“Nan - don’t say such dreadful things!” Angie’s face wore an expression of horror.

“What offends you? That Nan threatened to shuffle off her mortal coil, or that she intends to marry you off?” Pastor Turnbull teased.

“Well, it’s lucky Nan’s going to live to at least one hundred and twenty,” Angie replied, “because there is just no-one here in Jacaranda Plains I’d ever marry!”

“And what about you, Mikey?” Nan turned to Michael, and raised her eyebrows, “Could Miss Jemimah Parker be the one to change your mind about your monastic plans?”

Michael sighed, “No, Nan. Nothing against Jemimah Parker - from my first impression she seems to be a very nice young lady. But I thought you understood - I’m committed to staying single and free to serve God - even if you do live past one hundred and twenty, Nan.”

“I do understand what you are saying, Mikey - but I still don’t agree with you.”

“Well, it wouldn’t matter if he was interested anyway,” Angie spooned another serving of potato salad onto her plate. “Nope, now that Jemimah is in Mrs Hart’s clutches, no man whose name isn’t Hart will get a look in. I shudder to think of that poor little girl in the bear pit at Harts right as we speak!”

“Why on earth do you call it the bear pit?” asked Nan.

“Can you imagine that tiny Jemimah and all those huge, hairy, bear-like Hart men gathered around the one dining room table.” Although it wasn’t flattering Angie’s description was so accurate that it drew reluctant laughter from the rest of the family.

“Better watch what you say about the Hart’s,” her father held up a warning finger, “don’t forget your sister is marrying one of them in a few months time. I don’t see what you’ve got against them anyway.”

“It’s not that I have anything against the Harts personally - it’s just that they, and most of the other people out here seem entirely unaware that there is a whole world outside of Jacaranda Plains. It’s so depressing.”

“Grow up Angie,” Michael snapped, more irritated with her than usual, “unlike you, some people are content with the place that God has put them, and don’t have an insatiable desire to always be somewhere else. I’d much rather be out here in The Plains with my family and friends than working in Sydney - which you seem to think is the ideal.”

“Yes - but you’ve got a choice haven’t you? You’re not planning to marry a farmer from here, knowing that this is the last stop as far as your life is going. It’s okay for Gabi - she doesn’t have any ambition beyond marrying Ashley and settling down - she’s quite happy to be assimilated into the Hart clan. But if that’s all I had to choose from, I’d rather not marry and at least keep my options open.”

Angie put her empty plate down onto the coffee table with an air of finality, “And I really can’t imagine Jemimah staying out here for very long either - no matter what Mrs Hart’s high hopes might be. Like Michael said, this just doesn’t seem like the kind of place a girl like her should be.”

© R. L. Brown 2005

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