Jacaranda Plains

Chapter Four

“Yet perchance that you should journey down the very track you went,
In a month or two at furthest you would wonder what it meant,
Where the sunburnt earth was gasping like a creature in its pain,
You would find the grasses waving like a field of summer grain,
And the miles of thirsty gutters blocked with sand and choked with mud,
You would find them mighty rivers with a turbid, sweeping flood.”

From “In Defence of the Bush” ~ Banjo Patterson

“Looks like we won’t be the last ones,” Jamie said, nodding over his shoulder toward a white four wheel drive following several kilometres behind, “That’d be the Anderson’s, I reckon.”

In the back seat beside him, Jemimah glanced down at her watch again. The countryside still basked in broad daylight, but it was already ten minutes past seven. They hadn’t passed another vehicle the whole trip, and the one behind them was rapidly closing the gap. Mr Hart drove with as little haste as he did everything else.

“How far do we have to go?” Jemimah quietly asked Jamie.

“We’re all but there - this is already the start of the Peterson’s property.”

Although she could see no signs of habitation, Jemimah felt a measure of relief. “Which side of the road?” she asked, leaning over to peer through the front window. The road seemed to run forever through rough paddocks sprinkled with clumps of trees and she could make out no discernable change in the view ahead.

“Both.” Jamie pointed across her to the window opposite him, “There’s some of their cattle under that big tree - Poll Herefords. They do real well with their livestock, always getting top prices. Look at the size of that bull.”

Jemimah looked in the direction he indicated, wondering vaguely which of the huge brown and white cows was the bull. She had an idea that the bulls were meant to have horns . . . but none of the cows she could see seemed to have any horns at all.

“Mrs Peterson’s two sons have run the place since her husband died several years ago,” Mrs Hart told her. “And it’s really been let go. Poor Mrs Peterson’s not well enough to go anywhere now - and has to depend on whatever the boys feel like doing around the place. They’re a pretty rough pair, but she says she’s just grateful to have the opportunity to keep praying for their salvation while ever God gives her life. But like Jamie said, somehow those boys have got the knack with their cattle.”

A rough driveway opened up ahead of them on the left, and Jemimah frowned at the unsightly collection of decrepit tin sheds and rusting car bodies that surrounded the house. The house itself was shaped like a weatherboard shoe box, its paint grubby and peeling and the flat corrugated iron roof weighed down with a satellite dish and several crooked aerials.

There couldn’t have been a greater contrast to the Hart’s property - here were no gardens, just bare red dirt punctuated with tufts of rough grass. A door-less fridge and several empty distillate drums languished among tall weeds, and oddments of machinery spilled out of an open shed alongside the house.

The vehicle that Jamie had identified as the Anderson’s had quickly caught up with them, and now parked alongside as Mr Hart slowly rolled the car off the driveway and onto the dirt in front of the house. Half a dozen other cars were already parked in whatever clear space they found amongst the various mounds of rubbish, but no-one else was outside.

Jemimah climbed out quickly and was already turning toward the house when Mrs Hart slipped her hand through her arm.

“Jemimah, this is Karen Anderson - she and her husband Colin help organise the social night Marlene was telling you about.”

Mrs Hart introduced her to the woman with curly red hair who had just stepped down from the four wheel drive beside them, telling Karen that Marlene had arranged for Jemimah to come along on Friday nights.

“That would be terrific,” Karen Anderson’s green eyes lit up with enthusiasm, “we really need some girls your age getting involved. I’m only 36 . . . but as far as the kids are concerned that still makes me way too old.”

With her long gangly limbs and a wide grin as vibrant as the sleeveless dress she wore, Jemimah thought Karen Anderson looked anything but old.

“This is my daughter Leanne, and my son Richard,” she continued as two teenagers came around the car behind her, and said a brief hello to Jemimah before joining Jamie as he waited with Mr Hart. “And this is my husband Colin.”

A sturdy man with sun-bleached brown hair and eyes that mirrored his friendly smile came and put his arm on Karen’s shoulder. “Nice to meet you, Jemimah. But Karen - we’d better save any extended introductions until supper, don’t you think? Time’s getting on.” Colin gave Jemimah a sheepish grin and explained, “We forgot the meeting was out here tonight until we’d already gone ten minutes in the wrong direction.”

For the first time that day Jemimah saw Mrs Hart look down at her watch. “Later than I realised,” she commented shortly, and turned on her heel toward the house. Jemimah followed her, inwardly sighing at the silence from within which told her that the meeting was well under way.

As they passed the open shed a large, ugly dog lunged out, teeth bared and snarling. Jemimah jumped skyward and would probably have run for her life if not for the firm hand she felt on her shoulder.

“He won’t hurt you - he’s on a chain,” Colin Anderson’s warm voice said directly behind her, and Jemimah nodded her thanks, swallowing hard. Mrs Hart was already at the front door, but stopped and turned with a finger held to her lips.

“They’re praying now - better wait.”

Her heart still clamouring from her fright with the dog, Jemimah felt unaccustomed frustration rising within her. She’d always gone to great pains to be punctual and well organised, and yet today - when making a good first impression was so important to her - here she was, late again and anything but calm and collected.

The group went inside as the congregation began singing a hymn and knowing how flushed her face was, Jemimah was grateful that at least everyone was facing away from the door. Just as she began wondering where she could find an unobtrusive place to sit, Angie Turnbull turned around and beckoned Jemimah to a spare seat beside her, not far from the back of the room.

“I’m glad you made it,” Angie whispered under cover of the singing.

“So am I.”

Angie smiled. “Don’t worry - the Harts are always late, that’s why I saved you a seat. You must have survived the afternoon though; you certainly look a lot better than you did this morning. Was it okay at the Hart’s?”

The hymn was finishing so she just nodded and sat down quietly beside Angie. It seemed such a long time since she’d first met Angie that morning and she was glad she already felt reassuringly familiar. As much as she appreciated the Hart’s all-encompassing friendliness the visit had been somewhat overwhelming and the thought that Angie had been watching out for her meant a great deal.

As everyone took their places again Jemimah glanced shyly around the room. Although a few of the older people and some of the families with young children like Marlene’s were not there, it looked as though most of the congregation had made the effort to travel out to the meeting. They were crowded into the room on an assortment of old lounge chairs, kitchen chairs and several fold-up picnic chairs with Jamie and Leanne and Richard Anderson sitting with a few older children on the floor.

Against the far wall of the room, on a wooden kitchen chair between the TV and an old fridge, sat Michael Turnbull, his Bible and his notes spread out in front of him on a small coffee table.

He’s such a nice looking young man, Jemimah mused before catching herself quickly and looking down at her Bible. Where did that come from? She was here at this meeting to worship God and learn more about him from his word . . . and she had enough distractions on her mind without coming up with silly ideas about the preacher.

Closing her eyes briefly, Jemimah prayed for God to help her concentrate on the sermon. She’d missed gaining anything from the morning’s service, and was determined to get at least something from tonight’s. With her world upside-down since arriving in Jacaranda Plains yesterday she was craving some strong comfort from the Word.

Michael Turnbull announced the text as the 15th chapter of 1st Samuel and Jemimah winced when she turned to it and recognised the section. It recorded when Saul, the first king of Israel, was rejected by God after he failed to carry out God’s instructions to the letter . . . God’s instructions to attack the Amalekites and destroy them completely.

There were many passages like that in the Old Testament and while she didn’t understand or like them, she accepted that they were a part of the Bible. She just didn’t like to dwell on them.

Jemimah let out a slow breath and looked back up as Michael began to preach. Despite the casual surroundings, the same sense of solemnity that she’d felt that morning at the church pervaded the room. Before long he had the congregation turning to several references as he outlined the history of the Amalekite’s persecution of God’s people and the judgement God had spoken against them three hundred years earlier.

By the time Michael moved on to a careful exegesis of what Saul did wrong in not carrying out God’s judgement exactly as instructed, Jemimah was worn out with the effort of concentration. His preaching was compelling but there were no jokes or little anecdotes to lighten the message. She hadn’t worked so hard listening to anything since some of her lectures in the final year of uni. And never at church.

She caught sight of a movement through the kitchen door on the other side of the room, and guessed that the man she glimpsed reaching into the fridge for a beer must be one of Mrs Peterson’s sons. Dressed in torn jeans and a dark singlet top, he closed the fridge door and moved back out of sight. She didn’t hear him leave the room, and a few minutes later when she smelled cigarette smoke, Jemimah realised he was still in the kitchen and perhaps listening in unobserved.

Remembering what Mrs Hart had said about the two brothers, Jemimah prayed that perhaps the overheard sermon might somehow speak to him. It seemed a shame that the topic wasn’t something a little more inviting though, like focussing on the love of God rather than his judgement.

Her thoughts were distracted by wondering how the sermon might be taken by the man in the kitchen, but while she was not following the message as closely as she’d have liked, the main theme was clear. Saul had sinned against God by not carrying out his instructions to destroy everything belonging to the Amalekites, making the excuse that he’d kept the best of the cattle for sacrificing to God. Thinking yet again that his own ideas were better than God’s clearly revealed will had cost Saul and his heirs the kingship, but most importantly his relationship with God.

Michael compared the passage with several other scriptures to show how God’s lesson to Saul applied to everyone in their own relationship with God - that obedience was better than sacrifice. He went on to point out that failing to follow God’s instructions completely might seem like a small thing to us, but God is greatly grieved by it and views it as rebellion against him. Only someone with a renewed and transformed heart can truly please God - and Saul had revealed his true nature through his history of not submitting himself to the will of God and by his lack of true repentance when confronted by his sin.

Jemimah almost shivered at the sombre tone in Michael’s voice as he warned the congregation that just as God’s time of bearing with the rebellion of the Amalekites and of King Saul came to an end - if they were continuing in rebellion against God the day would come when his judgement against them would be delayed no longer. Despite Michael’s closing encouragement that God freely accepts all who seek forgiveness through faith in the finished work of Jesus, promising to transform their hearts so that they can please him, Jemimah felt considerably weighed down as she stood to sing the final hymn. The sermons at her own church weren’t even half as long, and there was so much more to take in and think through than she was used to.

Even though his preaching had taken her far out of her comfort zone, Jemimah couldn’t help but be impressed with her new insight into Michael Turnbull. He was obviously a gifted speaker with a real burden for those who didn’t know God, and she liked the way he supported everything he said directly from the Bible. She had never listened to a preacher who had referred to as many different biblical passages as Michael had done.

Jemimah glanced up as she heard his resonant voice leading the singing, his hymn book held in long tanned fingers.

And no wedding ring, she noted unintentionally, a warm glow in her chest when she recalled that apart from Michael’s sisters she hadn’t seen any young ladies anywhere in his vicinity that morning.

Shocked at the direction her thoughts were taking, Jemimah firmly reined her imagination back in. Of course she was impressed by this handsome young man, who wouldn’t be? He was a talented speaker and obviously very serious about his faith - and certainly not the kind to be at all interested in a silly little girl like her, who couldn’t even keep up with his sermon.

She determinedly turned her attention back to the hymn, annoyed by her wandering thoughts. It wasn’t like her at all . . .

After a few minutes of quiet following the benediction, Angie excused herself, explaining she wanted to make sure she caught up with Gabi before Ashley drove her home. Angie headed across to the front corner of the room where her sister and fiancé were sitting, and Jemimah glanced up shyly, taking stock of her surroundings.

A buzz of conversation was beginning to fill the room, Mrs Hart and some of the ladies were bringing out plates of cakes and slices from the kitchen. Other people were rearranging their chairs into a circular arrangement more conducive for chatting.

“So, you’re the new school teacher!”

Jemimah jumped at the loud voice from her left, and turned to see a middle-aged couple turning their chairs around to face hers.

“We’ve got grandkids up at the school; it’s a real answer to prayer to have a Christian getting the job. That last lass,” the man shook his head, raking his hand through grizzled hair, “half a dozen earrings in each ear and one in her nose! Not exactly the standards we wanted our kids imbibing.”

Jemimah wasn’t sure what to say to that, but was saved from answering by a younger woman bringing her chair and joining in the conversation.

“So, what are the lecturers at University teaching you these days? Have they woken up to the fact they’ve got a whole generation now who don’t know the basics of grammar or history?” she fired at Jemimah after briefly introducing herself. “Or are you still having to spend most of your time teaching a whole lot of basic stuff which should be the parent’s responsibility?”

They were all looking at her expectantly, and never one to cope well under pressure, Jemimah struggled to come up with some kind of answer for them. Her quiet reply only seemed to make them more eager with their questions and within minutes the group had been expanded by several others, all keen to introduce themselves and add their own questions.

Taking a deep breath, Jemimah glanced quickly around the room, longing for some way of escape. Gabi and Ashley were on their way out the door, Mr and Mrs Hart were busy helping serve supper and Angie was standing with her hands on her hips and locked in what appeared to be a heated conversation with Rob Hart. And not only was Michael Turnbull nowhere to be seen, she hadn’t so much as heard his distinctive voice in the room since he’d given the benediction.

She turned her attention back to the group surrounding her, trying to remember the names they had all given her only minutes earlier. Someone had brought her a cup of tea and she clutched the hot cup in her hand - but even the smell of it was repellently strong. She took a sip of the scalding liquid, more to buy herself time than anything, and tried to keep smiling, her lips pressed tightly together to stop them wobbling.

Jemimah managed another short answer, which was received with warm approval by her attentive audience, before someone asked her another question. Her eyes were beginning to sting with threatened tears - she found talking to strangers hard enough one at a time and in a group it was terrifying - and she knew she couldn’t keep it up much longer.

All at once her whole future seemed dismal. How would anyone ever accept her as a teacher for the little community school when it would soon become very apparent that she couldn’t even face talking to a room full of people?

© R. L. Brown 2006

Eos Development