Jacaranda Plains

Chapter Three

"And the roads were hot and dusty,
and the plains were burnt and brown,
And no doubt you're better suited
drinking lemon squash in town . . .

Banjo Paterson ~ from "In Defence of the Bush"

“We’re nearly there.”

Jemimah’s heart picked up uncomfortably. She’d felt safe in Gabi Turnbull’s quiet company and wished she could just keep on driving with her, rather than having to meet the many members of the Hart family who’d be joining them for lunch.

Gabi turned the car through a gate marked by the sign “Hart’s Content” and Jemimah stared ahead in awe. Two parallel rows of jacaranda trees lined the curving gravel drive beyond the gate, their ferny leaves nearly meeting in a lacy canopy overhead.

Encircling them as far as she could see were cotton fields striped with geometric rows of green bushes and trenches of rich black dirt, but in the middle of it sat the Hart’s home, resplendent in a lush oasis of trees and ornamental gardens.

“It’s so beautiful,” Jemimah breathed. After the dismal roughness of endless bushland, the vista in front shimmered like a mirage in the heat.

Jemimah’s first glimpse of the house itself sent an excited thrill down her spine - it was everything she dreamed a country farm house should be. Wide bull-nosed verandahs ran the full length of the large weather board home and the gabled roof was made of a deep red corrugated iron. Although the home was well maintained and wore a fresh coat of brilliant white paint, it was beautifully simple and mellowed with the graciousness of age.

White lattice work screened the lower part of the verandahs, and a tangle of climbing roses sprawled along their length. An archway over the path to the front door was nearly hidden by further masses of rosebushes, their petals in a dozen shades of pink and red.

Two more huge Jacaranda trees lent their gentle shade over the home, and beyond the house a meandering line of willows revealed the course of a small river. The tree-lined drive curved gently past the house, and continued another half a kilometre or so toward several small cottages.

“Yes, it always has the same effect on me too,” Gabi answered with a smile, “It was built by Ashley’s grandfather when he came here from America to start one of the first cotton farms in the area, and the Hart family has lived here ever since. It’s getting old now, but I still think it is one of the most beautiful homes in the district.”

Gabi pulled up in a paved parking area near the house and stepped out of the car, the outside heat rushing in as though she’d opened the door to an oven. After the coolness of the car’s air-conditioning, Jemimah had almost forgotten about the heat outside - and she reluctantly climbed out of the car to joined Gabi in the full glare of the sun.

She shaded her eyes with her hand and gazed across the lawn which ran gently toward the river.

“Oh, what is that?” Jemimah asked in delight, pointing to an airy structure of white lattice and curved red iron which stood on a small rise overlooking the river.

“The ‘Hart’s Content’ Rotunda - just an overgrown gazebo really - but it has a lovely view of the river, and if there is any breeze at all the Rotunda will get it. I think it’s a pretty special place.”

Gabi looked across at Jemimah with a shy smile before confiding, “Ashley actually proposed to me there in the Rotunda. One evening he invited me over for dinner, which I assumed was with the whole family. But before tea he took me down to the Rotunda for a walk, and surprised me with a very special candlelight dinner he’d set up for the two of us.”

“How lovely,” Jemimah could clearly imagine the fairy-tale scene in the Rotunda, “Your fiancé must be a real romantic.”

Gabi laughed, “Yes, he is - and uncharacteristically so for the Harts! Ashley gets a lot of ribbing from his brothers over it all - but he chose to propose to me there because he remembered us playing in there as little children. We’re planning to hold our reception here when we’re married in a August and have our wedding photos taken in the rotunda.”

She stared dreamily toward the river for a few moments, lost in her thoughts of the future until they heard the sound of tyres crunching on the gravel driveway.

“That’s the boys now,” she told Jemimah as a shiny red ute headed along the drive then turned away from them to go behind the house toward a large open shed. Gabi and Jemimah began walking toward the house and were met only a few minutes later by a tall young man with thick reddish brown hair and a closely trimmed beard. He towered over Jemimah, but as he held out his hand to shake hers she could see an unexpected gentleness in his brown eyes.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jemimah - I’m Ashley,” he introduced himself, before slipping his arms around Gabi and gently kissing the top of her head.

“Yes, I’ve been telling Jemimah all about you,” Gabi smiled up at him, her eyes sparkling as she drew him into their conversation. With the tiniest pang of envy Jemimah noticed the special glances the couple exchanged. While Gabi had looked happy while she’d been speaking of her fiancé, now she was with him she was absolutely radiant.

They all walked together to the front door, where Ashley excused himself to see what his father and brothers were investigating under the bonnet of the Landcruiser. Gabi slipped out of her shoes by the front door, held it open for Jemimah, welcoming her inside with the easy confidence of a family member.

“Ah, there you are girls! Come in, come in!” Mrs Hart came bustling into the spacious hall, stopping suddenly to shake her head at Jemimah. “You poor dear, let’s get you freshened up. You look like a little drooping hydrangea in need of a good watering. Gabi - will you get Jemimah a cool drink from the fridge? I’m just going to quickly run her a bath before I get lunch served.”

Before she quite realised what was happening, Jemimah found herself being borne down the long hallway and into a cool, timber panelled bathroom at the rear of the house. While Mrs Hart ran the water into an old fashioned claw-footed bath, throwing in generous handfuls of lavender bath salts, Gabi brought in tall glasses of chilled juice for each of them before leaving again on Mrs Hart’s directions to take the potatoes out of the oven.

From the louvered cupboards beneath an old-fashioned porcelain sink, Mrs Hart pulled out a thick bathrobe and a pile of soft, white towels, hand-embroidered with tiny pink roses. After a few more little grunts as she delved into the cupboards, rose shaped soap, scented talcum powder and a body cream were added to the pile on the vanity.

Mrs Hart tested the water, glanced around the bathroom with an air of satisfaction and then disappeared after assuring Jemimah she wouldn’t be disturbed and to relax and take her time. Overwhelmed by the unexpected kindness Jemimah stared about her for a few minutes, and had just unbuttoned her soiled dress when the door opened suddenly behind her.

She clutched her dress around herself as Mrs Hart reappeared and handed her a light summer frock.

“You pop this on after your bath and I’ll give your dress a soak. I had to grab one of my daughter-in-law’s since you’d simply drown in any of my dresses!

Just as suddenly the door shut again and she was gone.

Taking a deep breath, and waiting until the sound of Mrs Hart’s footsteps had retreated along the floorboards to the other end of the hall, Jemimah gingerly undressed and slid into the deep fragrant bath. The lukewarm water was immediately soothing to her stinging skin and aching muscles - but the strangeness of everything that was happening kept her from relaxing.

It seemed almost too hard to comprehend that she was lying in a stranger’s bathtub, in a farm house in the middle of nowhere, and Jemimah couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d fallen into a kind of Alice in Wonderland adventure where she was propelled helplessly from one strange situation to the next. It was unsettling and a little frightening to know that her parents had no idea at all of where she was and that they were not watching over her now . . .

“But God is watching over me,” she reminded herself, breathing in the gentle aroma of the lavender bath salts and smiling at the thought of all Mrs Hart’s provisions laid out by the sink. “And He really is looking after me. If I could just learn to trust that He will continue to do so . . . ”

Jemimah closed her eyes, wishing she could remain forever in this quiet refuge - but within a few minutes the sound of loud male voices and heavy footsteps filled the front part of the house. Mrs Hart had told her they would start lunch without her, but Jemimah didn’t want to appear rude by taking too long and began the long job of scrubbing the grease from her skin.

By the time she’d dried herself with the soft towels and rubbed cream into her scrapes and grazes, Jemimah felt pleasantly refreshed, and was very thankful for the brief time of solitude and quiet. The overwhelming fatigue had lessened to a pleasant and calming drowsiness and she felt more able to face the ordeal of meeting the rest of the family - until she caught site of her reflection in the cheval mirror in the corner.

With her face bare of make-up, her hair hanging in damp ringlets and the too-big dress hiding anything womanly of her figure, Jemimah saw with regret that she looked even more like a young teenager than the grown-up school teacher she was supposed to be. She sighed deeply, and thankful that at least she was clean and the smell of grease and dirt was finally gone, she made herself leave the refuge of the bathroom.

Jemimah had no trouble following the noise to the Hart’s dining room but paused just outside the open door, trying to summon the courage to enter. Despite its spacious proportions it seemed almost too small to accommodate the noise and activity of the dozen or so people devouring both the food and the conversation with enthusiastic gusto.

She recognised Mr Hart at one end of the table, with Mrs Hart on his right and Gabi and Ashley a few seats along from her, but crowded around the table were three other gigantic men, the dark haired lady who’d been playing the piano at church as well as three small children interleaved amongst them.

“Come in! Come in!” Mrs Hart called out from the table when she saw Jemimah hesitating in the doorway, “Just take a seat and get started, time enough to worry about the introductions when you’ve had something to eat.”

Jemimah’s appearance in the doorway had caused only the slightest lull in the lively conversation and the chatter quickly resumed as she sat down between Gabi and Mrs Hart. Too shy to look up at the people around her, Jemimah kept her eyes to the table top, marvelling at the array of food.

A huge china bowl was piled with baked potatoes and spread along the centre of the table was every kind of filling she could imagine - sour cream, grated cheese, diced ham, chopped cold meat, shredded salad vegetables, chutneys and vegetable preserves, herbs and a dozen different bottles of sauce.

“It’s self-service,” Mrs Hart explained, plonking a hot potato on Jemimah’s plate, “Just ask for anything you can’t reach.”

Jemimah murmured her thanks and tried to tell Mrs Hart how much she appreciated her kindness to her - but the older woman quickly dismissed the whispered speech with a smile and a friendly pat on the arm, “Enough of that, Jemimah, it’s our pleasure - you just get on with your meal. If you’re not quick the boys won’t leave anything for you.”

She soon saw that the passing of the condiments was as much a part of the conversation as everything else, and although Jemimah lacked the confidence to ask for any of the toppings that were out of her reach she was more than content to add some of the grated cheese and ham that were on the table just in front. The hot potatoes were golden with melted butter and smelt absolutely delicious and Jemimah realised she was surprisingly hungry.

For the first time since leaving for church that morning, Jemimah began to relax, contentedly taking in the noisy confusion of voices all competing in animated conversation. She felt inconspicuous amongst so many lively people, and discreetly looked around at her companions across the table.

The young woman sitting at the foot of the table appeared to be the mother of the three children, but Jemimah found it difficult to guess which of the three males sitting on the other side of the table was their father. Their huge frames and swarthy looks left no doubt they were all Ashley’s brothers - but all of them seemed just as involved as the young mother in ladling more food onto the children’s plates and wiping up accidental spills.

One of the young men, although as tall as the others, had the gangly long limbs of youth and might only have been in his late teens. Jemimah had noticed him staring at her several times and had been rewarded with a huge smile when she passed him the grated cheese.

It was a little harder to estimate the age of the other two; the brother with the intense dark eyes and heavy eyebrows that seemed to be permanently scowling looked to be somewhere in his early twenties, but the man beside him could have been aged anywhere between twenty five and thirty five. His curly hair and unruly beard, more red than brown, hid most of his face and he seemed even taller and more solid than Mr Hart himself.

I’ve never seen men so big . . .like huge bears,
Jemimah was musing when the oldest brother caught her eye and winked.

“So, what’s a nice girl like you doing in place like this?” he drawled, grinning broadly as she blushed in embarrassment.

Mrs Hart pointed an admonitory finger at him, “Now Jack - I told you boys not to be teasing our guest!” She turned to Jemimah with an apologetic shake of the head, and obviously deciding Jemimah had been given enough time to settle in launched into the introductions.

“You’ve already met Ted, Ashley and Gabrielle, but the cheeky one opposite is Jack, our eldest, and beside him is David who is in his final year at Uni in Armidale,” Jack was still watching Jemimah with amused interest and David acknowledged the introduction with a brief nod, “and this is our youngest, little Jamie. He’s nearly seventeen and starting his second last year of high school.”

“Lovely to meet you, Jemimah,” Jamie gushed, smiling warmly across the table, his eyes sparkling with pleasure. “You’re really going to love it here in The Plains - wait till we show you around - you’ll be really impressed.”

“I already am,” she answered softly, “it’s very different to anywhere I’ve been but I’m looking forward to getting to know it better.”

Jack was grinning at his little brother’s glowing expression, and Jemimah was relieved that Mrs Hart introduced the dark haired young lady before Jack could make any of the teasing comments she could see lurking in the back of his eyes.

“This is my lovely daughter-in-law, Marlene, who is just like a daughter to me,” Marlene exchanged smiles with Jemimah, her dark eyes warm and friendly as Mrs Hart continued, “and these are my gorgeous grandchildren - Christopher, Bailey and Lucy.”

“Say hello to Miss Parker, children,” Marlene prompted them.

“Hello Miss Parker,” the three children chorused. Jemimah returned their greeting feeling almost melted by their huge grins.

“Are you really old enough to be a teacher?” Christopher, the oldest of the children, asked artlessly, “When we came home from church Jamie said you looked even younger than him.”

Jamie looked straight down and busied himself with his lunch, while Jack burst out laughing, “You’ve blown it now, Jamie boy!”

“Really, Christopher!” Mrs Hart reprimanded him, although it was Jamie and Jack she glared at.

Despite her embarrassment, Jemimah smiled gently at the young boy, “Yes, I am Christopher - but only just. I finished my training last year so this will be my very first school. I’ve been told there are just two classes, so you might be one of my very first students.”

Christopher thought for a moment and then shook his head sadly, “No - I don’t think so. I’m turning nine in June and I’m going to be in third class this year. And Miss Armstrong always has the primary classes, and the new teachers have the infants. But Bailey and Lucy have just turned six so they’ll be in your class.”

“Oh, you’re both six? Are you twins?” Jemimah looked in surprise from Bailey’s freckled face and gingery hair to Lucy’s olive skin and raven curls.

“Yes!” they answered in such perfect unison that everyone at the table laughed.

“Well, if all my students are as lovely as you three, I’m sure I’m going to have a wonderful time,” Jemimah told the children, and then leaned back as Ashley reached across her for the pickles and passed them over the table to Jack.

“Did you hear that the Patterson’s aren’t moving now?” Jack asked him, scooping a spoonful of the preserves onto another potato.

“No, last I heard they had to sell up and go,” Ashley answered.

“Apparently not, Patrick was telling me the same company that bought the Higgin’s farm has made the Patterson’s a good offer too, so they’re selling to them and staying on as managers.”

“Is it that Agtech?” Ashley asked, “I think that’s the company that bought out the Rice’s and Simmond’s places too.”

“That’s not good if it is.” Jack was frowning, “It’s not going to be good for any of us if half the place is bought up and run by some outside company. Probably all foreign owned and going to ruin good land.”

“Mitch reckons that Agtech’s bringing in technology that will leave the rest of us in the dust,” Jamie said importantly.

Jack snorted. “What would you or Mitch know anyway, Jamie!”

“Don’t talk to your brother like that!” Mrs Hart chided the huge man as though he were an eight year old but Jack just raised his eyes skyward.

“Have you heard anything about Agtech at Uni, David?” Marlene asked, and Jemimah suspected she was trying to steer the conversation away from Jack’s strong opinions.

David looked up from his meal, “Apparently they have developed a lot of new methods and technology, but there hasn’t really been time for it to be proved yet.”

“See - who knows what’ll happen!” Jack claimed the point.

“I imagine the Patterson’s are pretty happy about it if they have the capital from their land, and get paid to stay on,” Marlene said, unfazed by the rising heat between the brothers.

“And I’ll be glad not to see them leave the area.”

It was the only comment Jemimah had heard Mr Hart make all mealtime, but by the time she glanced in his direction, his eyes were back on his own plate as though he had never spoken.

“Come on, Jack, you’ve got to admit it’s better than selling out to the Brother’s Grim!”

“I don’t have to admit anything, Ash. Why mess around with new technology when things are fine as they are. Does some corporation know better than those who’ve been in this industry from the beginning?”

“Who are the Brother’s Grim? Are they real people?” Jemimah whispered to Gabi while the discussion continued around the table.

“Oh, yes - they’re real,” Gabi laughed, shaking her head, “Although I’m sure they don’t care much for the local nickname. They’re actually the men I work for - Geoffrey, Gerald and Gregory Grimshaw. They pretty much have the professional services of the Jacaranda Plains district all tied up - Geoffrey is a solicitor, Gerald is an accountant, and Gregory is a Real Estate Agent, auctioneer, undertaker and about a dozen other miscellaneous things.”

“Obviously they’re related?”

“Brothers. Their father was one of the original businessmen to set up in the area and he amassed a very large portfolio of properties and got his hand into running most of the businesses too. He had his sons educated into the various professions, and now they own just about everything in town.”

“Are you telling Jemimah about the Brothers Grim?” Ashley asked, slipping his arm around Gabi and leaning forward to see to Jemimah, “It’s like playing Monopoly against someone who ends up with just about everything and then buys out all the other players when they’re going down and their properties are mortgaged to the bank. Except these aren’t just little green houses they’re playing for - but family farms.”

Jemimah frowned “That doesn’t sound very nice.”

“It’s all quite legitimate I assure you, no matter what Ash is inferring,” Gabi told her, making a mock scowl at her fiancé, “When someone becomes desperate to sell up, the Grimshaws have enough capital to buy it cheaply and hold on to it for however long it takes to sell it at a profit. But I guess that kind of thing doesn’t really make you popular in a small place like this.”

“So they really are grim, then?”

“They’re not exactly the life of the party,” Ashley said with grimace, “Though I guess it’s a bit awkward for them to socialise freely when they know the legal and financial details of just about everyone in the district - but they do have a reputation for being all business and no pleasure.”

“But they’re really quite nice when you get to know them, just reserved,” Gabi added quickly. “Angie and I run their office between us, and apart from the fact there is always way too much to do I certainly have no complaints.”

“Don’t all those G. Grimshaws get a bit confusing?”

“I think it’s deliberately so,” cut in Ashley with a wicked grin at Gabi, “That way, with the same initials and conveniently similar signatures, perhaps it doesn’t matter which of the Brother’s Grim does what.”

“Ashley, you make it sound like a conspiracy,” Gabi sighed in exasperation, “It’s nothing of the sort Jemimah, I assure you everything is done quite legitimately. They do all work fairly interchangeably up to a point, but anything that legally requires a solicitor or accountant or whatever, is only done by that particular brother.”

“But it’s the office girls who do all the real work anyway, isn’t it sweetheart?” Ashley teased, giving her an affectionate hug and turning his attention back to the other conversation.

“Will you tell me more about your job, Gabi? It sounds so interesting,” Jemimah prompted, and they were still chatting about her work when everyone had finished their meals.

When Mrs Hart began collecting up the dishes, Jemimah stood up to help her and began putting the empty plates into a pile. Mrs Hart took the stack from her hands with a smile, but firmly declined her offer to help wash up.

“How about you and Marlene go and sit in the lounge room while we get the clearing up done?” she suggested, amidst her directions to Jamie to collect up the toppings and David to scrape the scraps into the dogs bowl, “You will be seeing a lot of each other so why not grab the chance to get to know each other now?

“I’ll take the kids out to see to the animals,” Jack announced, pushing back his chair and getting up from the table, “and I think those kittens in the shed might just be big enough for some little people to have a hold of now.”

Jemimah watched in surprise as he swung Bailey out of his chair and deposited him in a small wheelchair she hadn’t noticed in the corner of the room. Christopher and Lucy scrambled out of their seats and followed Jack and Bailey out onto the verandah - their excited voices disappearing around the side of the house.

“I didn’t even notice that Bailey had a disability,” Jemimah told Marlene as they walked together along the hall and into a spacious lounge room, “he seems to take it well in his stride.”

Marlene nodded, pride evident in her smile. “Yes, he does. Bailey was born with spina bifida and he’s already been through a few major operations, but he’s doing really well considering all that. Christopher and Lucy are terrific for him too, they seem to take it for granted he just needs a little extra help and most of the time make sure he doesn’t get left out.”

The lounge room took up the back corner of the house, and through the large windows Jemimah watched Jack and the children heading along a concrete path toward one of the huge sheds. Lucy was riding on his shoulders and Christopher gambolled around Jack and Bailey like a young calf.

“How does Bailey manage at school?” she asked, sitting down beside Marlene on a huge old sofa. The sofa’s fabric was worn, but most of it was covered with a hand pieced quilt and piles of scatter cushions, and Jemimah sank into it’s soft depths.

“So far so good. Although he couldn’t manage on his own at this stage - I stay up at the school so I’m always on hand to help him with the toilet or anything else he needs.”

“You have to be there every day? Isn’t the Education Department able to provide a teachers aide or some other kind of support for him?”

“Well, they actually provide a special class at one of the other schools in the district with the extra resources and the teacher’s aides - but I felt it really wasn’t worth having Bailey travelling three quarters of an hour each way to go there. Apart from the wasted time, it would mean he would be living so far away from everyone else at his school, whereas here he’s able to be with his brother and sister and the other kids he knows from the area.”

Marlene piled a couple of the cushions behind her head and leant back into the corner of the sofa, tucking her legs up under her. Her glossy, dark hair fell over her shoulders in thick waves, and although Jemimah was sure from her accent that Marlene was Australian born, her rich brown eyes and olive skin made her curious about her cultural heritage.

“Bailey doesn’t need me that often through the day,” Marlene continued, “so I spend the rest of my time helping out with office work or with the reading groups and anything else that Linda Armstrong, the head teacher, might need. I quite enjoy being involved with the school - but I can’t tell you how relieved I am to have met you, Jemimah, and find out you’re so nice. It’s a bit of a challenge at times for Bailey at school, and it will be so much easier for me working in with someone so understanding.”

“Thank you.” Jemimah blushed at her compliment but felt overwhelmed by this confident young woman’s trust in her. She had such limited experience - what if she let Marlene and her children down?

“Is Bailey getting along okay with the other children in his class? Does he have any particular interests?” she asked, feeling the more she understood of his situation the better.

“Really well, he actually fitted in a lot better than we expected. And we’ve discovered he has quite a gift for the piano. Jack takes him to Narrabri for piano lessons every Saturday morning and he’s progressing very well. When Jack brings the kids back inside, I’d love you to hear him play.”

“I’d really like that,” Jemimah replied, noticing the baby grand piano which sat discreetly in the corner. “You must be so proud of your children, Marlene - all three of them are just beautiful. And Jack looks like a great dad - how long have you been married?”

Marlene shook her head, frowning. “Oh no, Jack is not my husband - he’s my brother in law, although he’s often more like a Dad to the kids than an uncle. Rowan, my husband, died 4 years ago.”

“Oh . . . I’m so sorry,” Jemimah’s pressed her hand to her lips in shock, “I had no idea.” She sat in stunned silence, having no idea what to say - from her impression of Marlene and the children she would never have guessed that there could be such a tragedy in their lives.

Marlene reached over and squeezed Jemimah’s arm. “It’s okay - we’ve had our hard times, but God has really looked after us. This is Rowan.”

She picked up a large pewter photo frame from the coffee table and showed it to her. Jemimah stared at the picture of a slightly younger Marlene holding twin babies, laughing up at a tall young man with the unmistakeable Hart looks carrying a grinning toddler on his shoulders. The family looked so complete and Rowan so young and healthy - looking at the photo it was hard to believe he was no longer alive.

“We were blessed in that God gave us time to prepare for the future,” Marlene continued. “When Rowan realised he was dying, we talked through what the best thing for us to do would be - and we decided the children and I should stay here with his family. My family are from Melbourne, and aren’t Christians - and this was our home now. The Harts have really looked after us, and as you can see the kids have a close relationship with Pa and all their uncles - so although their Dad is gone, they’re still growing up with the example of godly men around them.”

“So you all live together in this house?” Jemimah asked when she was finally able to speak.

“Oh no - we’re quite independent in that way - we’ve got our own cottage down the drive by the river. Did you see them when you arrived? Ours is the back one down there - it’s the largest. It’s the best of both worlds really, we’re able to be as separate as we like the and family are close by too.”

“It must be a beautiful place to live,” Jemimah said softly, thinking of the sweet cottages nestled between the avenue of Jacarandas and the curving riverbank. “Does anyone else live in the other cottages?”

“Not at the moment - they’ve been leased out to farm workers from time to time, but the rest are empty now.”

Mrs Hart leaned in through the doorway, “Can I get you girls a tea or coffee? We’re just about done in here.”

“Yes thank you, a coffee would be lovely,” Marlene answered, but Jemimah just smiled and shook her head, still a little shaken by the thought of Marlene’s loss.

“Have you told Jemimah about your social group, Marlene? It might be a good way for her to get to know some more of the folk here,” Mrs Hart suggested.

“I was just thinking that myself,” Marlene replied and looked back at Jemimah as Mrs Hart returned to the kitchen. “Another family from church and I organise an informal social evening most Friday nights. I suppose our main aim is just to provide a positive social outlet for the local young people we have contact with - but we try to get people of all ages from our church involved in it too. That way it helps our own teenagers build friendships with the older people in the congregation, as well as giving the kids from outside the church an opportunity to come under a Christian influence in a casual way. We don’t try to do a Bible study or anything formal like that, but just aim to provide a setting where we can share our faith one on one, and hopefully invite people who are interested to come along and hear the Word being preached at church.”

Marlene glanced toward the kitchen door, where the boy’s voices could clearly be heard as the last of the dishes were put away, “It was something Rowan and I started doing not long after we were married. He was especially aware of the pressures kids face growing up in the bush, and wanted to do something practical for kids like Jamie and his school friends. Some of the single people, both in the church and outside of it can get pretty isolated out here, and often end up hanging around with the wrong sort of people. It would be really great if you were able to come along and help out.”

Jemimah bit on her lower lip as she worried over what to reply. She felt very grateful for the way the Hart family had offered their friendship and opened their home to her, and she really did want to do everything she could to serve God in this new place -especially if it would help this courageous young woman - but she was daunted by the thought of being swept into any kind of commitment or responsibility amongst strangers.

“What exactly would you want me to do to help?” she asked a little awkwardly.

“Nothing! Just join in with the kids and enjoy yourselves,” Marlene told her, the warmth in her lustrous eyes reassuring Jemimah of her understanding. “All I’m wanting is a bit of a role model for the girls - so that they can get to know some older girls who have a different approach to life than they are used to. We’ve got a good group of teenage girls who come along regularly - but there are no young Christian women in the church who are coming now. Gabi used to - but Ashley’s away so much with work at the moment that they don’t get a lot of time together except at the weekends. I’ve been trying to get Angie to come along for ages - but she won’t come on her own. The first social for the year is going to be here, on Friday week. Maybe if you’ll come, Angie will too - perhaps the two of you could meet up in town and come together?”

Jemimah smiled in relief, thankful Marlene hadn’t asked something she couldn’t have managed. “Sure - I can certainly come along, and I’ll ask Angie too if you like. What time is it on?”

They were still discussing the details when Mrs Hart returned with a cup for herself and Marlene, and sat down on the lounge beside her daughter-in-law.

“I’m actually quite spoilt,” Marlene told Jemimah, with a warm smile toward Mrs Hart, “The kids sleep over here with Ma and Pa every Friday night, so not only am I free to organise the social nights, I also get a sleep-in and the morning to myself on Saturday, which is a real treat!”

“And a treat for us having the children all to ourselves,” Mrs Hart added, turning as Jack and the children returned noisily along the verandah.

“That’s the animals all checked,” Bailey called out from through the open doors. “Can I come in and play the piano now, Mum?”

“After you’ve washed your hands, Bailey - that would be lovely.”

A few minutes later, the rest of the Hart family had emerged from the kitchen and taken their seats in the odd assortment of old fashioned sofas and huge arm chairs. Jack lifted the piano stool aside and Bailey wheeled himself up to the piano.

“I’ve learnt your favourite, Ma,” he announced proudly, and after turning up the page in his hymn book delivered a creditable rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Even though there were a few errors in every verse, the whole family joined in and sang as though Bailey were a concert pianist. After two more familiar hymns, he rolled his wheelchair back from the piano and turned to Jemimah.

“If you’ll tell me your favourite, Miss Parker, I’ll learn it for you too.”

“Thank you, Bailey - that would be very special,” she answered, touched by the sincerity on the small, freckled face, “Do you know ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful?’”

Bailey’s face broke into a wide gapped smile, “Oh, yes! I love that one too - I’ll start on it next time I practise. Will you play it for Miss Parker now, Mummy?”

“Sure.” Marlene took her place at the piano, and Jemimah was able to appreciate her mastery of the instrument far more fully than she had at church that morning. After Jemimah’s choice had been sung, Marlene kept playing as each person made their request.

Jemimah snuggled her head back against the soft cushions, feeling privileged to have been so graciously included in this special family time. Despite the blazing sunshine outside, the cool breeze from the evaporative cooler made the high-ceilinged room surprisingly comfortable and Jemimah closed her eyes for a moment, savouring the rich tone of the piano and the beautiful words of the hymns.

Slowly Jemimah became aware that the singing had stopped, and the piano seemed quieter and further away. It felt like only a few minutes since her heavy eyes had closed, and now as she struggled to open them she became aware that the music was not coming from the piano - but from the stereo - and apart from its soft melody, the room was silent and still.

“A-ha! Sleeping Beauty awakes.”

Jemimah jolted upright, turning to see Jack and Jamie looking down at her from the doorway. She stared at them for a moment as she tried to get her bearings, dazed by surprise.

“Oh, dear - I must have nodded off,” she said, and suddenly noticed the cooler temperature and the longer shadows in the room. “What time is it?”

“It’s after eight - you’ve slept right through church - we must have woken you up coming back in,” Jack shrugged casually, “Everyone was asking where you were tonight.”

“Oh, no!” Jemimah jumped to her feet, trying to focus her still blurry eyes on the dial of her watch. Her thoughts jostled in confusion - she knew the sun set later out west, but it still seemed too light outside . . . and her watch seemed to show the time as around six o’clock.

“Jack Hart! What a load of nonsense!” reprimanded Mrs Hart as she suddenly appeared in the doorway behind him. “I hope you trouble-makers didn’t wake the poor girl up?”

“Aw, Mum - I wouldn’t do that. Jemimah was just stirring when we went past. Besides, you’d have had to wake her to get ready for church any minute now,” replied Jack without any trace of remorse.

Jemimah sank back down onto the couch, her heart still pounding.

“So it is only just after six then?” She let out a slow breath of relief, “How long have I been asleep?”

“For just over two hours. Mum made us all sneak out quietly when you fell asleep,” answered Jamie, his eyes still large with curiosity as he regarded her.

“Well, we couldn’t hear the piano over the snoring anyway -” Jack began, before Mrs Hart told him off and pushed him out into the hallway.

“Don’t you pay any attention to him!” Mrs Hart said, shaking her head in despair, “You’d think that boy was never taught any manners!”

“I’m so sorry . . . I didn’t even realise I was dropping off,” Jemimah apologised, getting to her feet again, “I hope I haven’t held you up.”

Mrs Hart shook her head, plumping up the cushions on the lounge, “Not at all.You drifted off to sleep like a little angel, and after the morning you’ve had a bit of a rest was just what you needed.”

“Thank you . . . but what time is church tonight?” Her mind was still sluggish with sleep but Jemimah knew she must work out what she should be doing next.

“At seven - but we’re having the service out at the Peter’s place tonight and they’re about forty minutes west of here. Mrs Peter’s not well and she’s not able to travel out to church now, so every now and then we all head out there so she has a chance to join in with us all. But come through to the kitchen now - and have a bite to eat before we go.”

Before we go?

Mrs Hart turned briskly and Jemimah followed her and Jamie toward the kitchen, her mind whirling. When she’d come over for lunch, she’d expected Gabi to be take her back to her car soon after the meal - but she’d fallen asleep and now it was so late in the afternoon - and Gabi was nowhere in sight.

“Excuse me . . . Mrs Hart?” Jemimah whispered as she came up to the kitchen bench beside her, “My car is still out at the church . . . how will I get back there?”

“Don’t worry about that now, dear,” Mrs Hart patted her on the shoulder as she continued buttering a plateful of toast, “You’ll come out to the Peter’s with us in the Landcruiser, and one of us will drop you back to your car tonight. Jack, you’re taking the ute too, aren’t you? Where’s David? Is he going with you?”

“Probably not. He disappeared out the back on the quadrunner when Gabi and Ashley left. I reckon he’ll conveniently lose track of the time - again.”

Mrs Hart sighed heavily, and handed Jamie a stack of plates which he placed on the table. Jemimah followed the others to the table, and took a seat just as Mr Hart silently entered the room. He led the family in a brief grace, and then took his place at the head of the table.

“David’s not back. Should I send Jamie after him?” Mrs Hart asked him quietly from beside his elbow.

Mr Hart gave a nearly imperceptible shake of his head and began to eat his toast. Mrs Hart sighed again, and sat down beside him.

Jemimah ate as quickly as she could manage, recognising a familiar feeling of helplessness about her situation. Just like that morning, when Mrs Hart had organised for her to leave her car at church, Jemimah had no choice but accept Mrs Hart’s plans for the evening. Gabi had already left, and Jemimah had no other option than being swept along with the Hart’s wherever they decreed.

She could only hope it wouldn’t be too late a night when she was dropped back at her car - but even so - would she ever find her way into town in the dark? The dirt roads and endless bushland had been treacherous enough under the bright glare of the sun and Jemimah could only imagine how menacing they would seem in the dark.

Jemimah sipped from the glass of water in front of her, the fears she’d managed to push to one side when she’d arrived at the Hart’s were bullying their way back in. Even putting aside her concerns about getting back home, Jemimah wasn’t sure she was ready to face meeting the rest of the church that evening.

She’d managed to avoid talking to anyone but the Turnbull’s that morning but she wouldn’t be that fortunate if she went again this evening. There’d been so many curious faces turned her way that morning, and they would probably be all there waiting to assess her tonight.

She felt her face growing hot as she remembered the appearance she must have given as she’d stumbled into the church that morning. And now to go again without wearing any makeup or styling her hair . . . Jemimah glanced down, having forgotten until then that she was still wearing a borrowed dress, at least three sizes too large for her.

“Mrs Hart . . .” she began nervously as the older woman returned to the table with another plate of toast, “could you please tell me where my clothes are?”

“They’re still soaking in the laundry - stains like that grease will need to be left at least overnight - but I’m sure I can get them out for you, even if it takes a few goes.”

“But . . . this is Marlene’s dress . . .”

Mrs Hart shook her head, smiling. “She won’t mind you wearing it at all, lovey, just hang on to it until next we see you - that’s no problem at all. Now who wants another cuppa?”

As the three Hart men around the table gave their orders for tea and coffee, Jemimah glanced up at the clock. It was already twenty past six and Mrs Hart had mentioned a forty minute drive to the meeting. If they left right now they’d make it on time . . . but no-one at the table seemed to feel any sense of urgency.

The ten minutes it took until the family had got up from the table and began making their way toward the door seemed like an eternity to Jemimah, who couldn’t keep her eyes from her watch. Weren’t they aware of the time?

When Mrs Hart disappeared to find Jemimah’s shoes she almost wished she go barefoot in order to save time, but after a few long minutes the shoes were in her possession and she was finally following everyone outside back into the heat.

“Aren’t you coming with me, Jamie?” Jack called out as he headed over to the gleaming red Hilux ute.

“No - I’m going with Mum and Dad.”

“You don’t usually,” his older brother replied with a teasing smile.

“Yeah - but I want to show Jemimah everything on the way over.” Jamie answered as he went over to join the others, oblivious to his brother’s ribbing. Jack laughed and as he caught Jemimah’s eye and winked at her she realised she wasn’t the only one who was aware of Jamie’s keen interest in her.

Jamie held open the back door and Jemimah climbed inside, taking a deep breath. She was heading even further out into the bush with people she’d only met hours earlier, she was dressed in borrowed clothes and about to spend an evening amongst a group of total strangers.

Not all total strangers, the thought came suddenly into mind as she remembered the kindness of Angie and Gabi Turnbull. . . and of their brother Michael.

Recalling the genuine warmth in Michael Turnbull’s voice and the concern in his eyes when he’d spoken to her after the service, Jemimah felt a strange flutter in her stomach.

It must just be embarrassment about making such a fool of myself she told herself, trying to ignore the heat that rose in her cheeks when she realised she’d most likely see him again that evening.

As the vehicle gave a shuddering start and pulled onto the driveway, Jemimah looked out across the rows of cotton. Despite everything, she was suddenly glad to be heading out to the meeting.

© R. L. Brown 2006

Eos Development