“And waiting at the crossing place
I saw a maiden fair of face
With eyes of deepest violet blue
And cheeks to match the rose in hue”
From “The Road to Gundagai” ~ Banjo Paterson
It didn’t take Michael long to see that Jemimah Parker hadn’t left and in fact was the centre of attention of a small group of people gathered in the back corner of the room. Mr Higgins, a farmer who’d been in the church as long as Michael could remember, was leaning forward toward Jemimah, jabbing the air with his finger as he made his point.
Catching snatches of the conversation, Michael smiled to himself. Max Higgins thrived on lively discussions and would be delighted about having a fresh audience for his opinions on educating children.
“. . . good Christian discipline is what they need - none of this building up their self-esteem nonsense . . .”
“ . . . and it is such an answer to prayer having you come here - we end up with so many people who come out here just to serve out their time and no real commitment to the job.” Phillipa Clarke’s bluntly cut hair swung past her ears as she nodded intently as she spoke. Although her children were all in high school now, she was still one of the most active voices in the local school’s Parents’ and Citizens’ group.
“Yes - it’s more than just a job,” Mr Higgins chimed in emphatically, “you have to want to be part of the community. I’m glad that you’re going to be one of us - not an outsider . . .”
Jemimah was saying very little, just nodding silently at the comments that were fired at her. With no make-up and her hair falling loosely around her face in soft curls, she looked even more childlike and innocent than she had that morning.
Her cheeks were beginning to take on a rosy glow and Michael remembered how she’d blushed when he’d spoken to her that morning. He’d been intrigued - he’d never seen anyone blush like that before. It began with crimson blotches on her cheeks and then more appeared on her forehead and jaw - all spreading until they finally merged and her whole face was covered - and still the flush had risen until it continued up to the roots of her fair hair and right down her neck.
Now it was beginning again and as she blinked rapidly, Michael realised that what at first he thought was a frown of concentration was actually a determined effort not to cry. His stomach twisted as he thought just how much she reminded him of Nan’s tiny kitten that afternoon, cowering beneath the enthusiastic attention of their cattle dogs.
“Jemimah - are you ready for another cuppa?” he called out across the room, “Bring your cup into the kitchen and I’ll make you a refill.”
Jemimah looked up, unbelievable relief in her huge blue eyes. She rose quickly, and followed him into the kitchen.
“Thank you,” she whispered as she handed him her nearly full cup with an unsteady hand. Michael watched in concern as she walked past him and leant back against the kitchen bar, her eyes tightly shut and her hand pressed against her lips. She was obviously on the verge of tears and trying hard to maintain her dignity.
What should he do? Should he leave her in privacy and say nothing? It might only embarrass her further to ask what was wrong . . . but then, she looked so alone - and who else did she have to talk to here? Gabi had left soon after the service, and Angie . . . well, she wasn’t the most tactful person he knew.
“Can I help?” he asked softly.
Jemimah shook her head, and burst into tears.
Praying silently for wisdom, Michael took a deep breath and walked over to her, putting his hand lightly on her shoulder. She was trembling just like the kitten had when he’d rescued it from his dogs and he felt the same longing to take her up in his arms and hold her until she felt safe again.
Instead he gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze and handed her his clean handkerchief. “How about I make you a cup of tea? How do you have it?”
She shrugged helplessly, “I . . . don’t.”
She shook her head.
It wrung something inside him to see her struggling to contain her tears but he smiled at her cheerfully. “Oh dear, we’ll have to do something about that. No-one out here in the bush will know what to do with you if they can’t make you a cuppa,” he kept his tone light. “How about I make you one my way, and we’ll see what you think.”
Michael pulled out a kitchen stool for her and went over to the sink to rinse out her cup. With sudden clarity he remembered that his father used to do exactly this when his mother was distressed; sit her down and make her a cup of sweet, weak tea before he even began to talk to her.
Strange that it would come to mind like this. Michael frowned as he put the teabag in the cup and poured in the milk. He’d never specifically remembered it before.
When he handed the warm cup to Jemimah a few minutes later, the blush was gone from her skin and her eyes looked dark with misery in her tiny, pale face. She thanked him with a silent half-smile and wrapped her hands around the cup - as though despite the sweltering evening she somehow craved its warmth.
“I don’t envy you being new in town,” Michael picked up his cup and sat down on the other old stool beside her. “Although I know everyone has the best intentions in trying to make you welcome, all the attention must be rather overwhelming. I’ve grown up in this little community - and our church is like family to me - but I still find it hard to deal with the pressure of everyone’s interest and expectations.”
Michael didn’t know if he was even getting through to Jemimah. She sat like a statue, staring down at her cup.
“How’s your tea?” he asked, hoping that might get some response.
He knew Jemimah hadn’t even tasted it, but after his question she lifted the cup to her lips and took a tentative sip. She frowned as though surprised and then drank more deeply.
“It’s . . . it’s nice,” she answered, her voice barely audible. “Thank you . . . for this. I’m so sorry for the trouble.”
“Don’t be. Anyone would feel intimidated in a new place and being bombarded by everyone’s ideas of what a teacher should be and do. But it’s your job - not theirs,” he told her and then grinned wryly. “Though it seems the people who think they know most about teaching are the ones who’ve never studied or put it into practice.”
She nodded politely, but tears were welling up in her eyes again.
“You’ll be fine, Jemimah,” Michael felt he was getting close to getting through to her, “you wouldn’t have graduated or been given the job here unless you’d proved yourself as more than competent. I know it’s pretty overwhelming with everyone out there telling you what high expectations they’ve got - but you don’t have to prove anything, not to them and not to yourself. Just be content to do your job to the best of the ability that God gives you.”
“But it’s not that . . . I feel so guilty,” Jemimah gulped and two huge tears slid down her cheeks, “I’m not what you all think.”
Michael raised his eyebrows in surprise, “What do you mean?”
“I . . . I don’t really want to be here . . . I never wanted to come. I don’t even know . . . if I really want to be a teacher . . . or if everyone will think I’m dreadful . . .” her voice broke off in a sob.
Michael reached over and took the half-empty cup out of her trembling hands, and tried not to smile at her terrible disclosure. Understanding her shyness and aware of what his father had said about her sheltered upbringing, he wasn’t at all surprised to hear that coming to Jacaranda Plains hadn’t been her choice.
“So how did you find yourself with the job of teaching here, then?”
Jemimah dabbed at her eyes with his large white hanky, and took a shaky breath. “I took Education at Uni because I didn’t know what else to do . . . and I love children. I really did enjoy it. I love being in the classroom with children . . . but I never thought that I’d get a permanent position so soon . . . or that I’d have to move so far away.”
“But you took the position anyway?”
Jemimah nodded. She was beginning to speak more normally, as if making her confession had eased her mind. “I had to really. I’d prayed about my future and that God would provide work - so when I was offered this position, I couldn’t just ignore it. So I prayed that he would show me if there was any reason why I shouldn’t take it. And I prayed and prayed and no matter how hard I tried I still couldn’t find a single reason not to take it,” she gave him a self-deprecating smile before continuing.
“In fact, despite me hating the idea, there just seemed to be every indication that it was God’s will - things like my pastor knowing your Dad, and there being a good church here . . . my family and church all thought I should come . . . and I just didn’t have any peace of heart about refusing the position. I would have been going against what seems to be God’s will not to come just because I didn’t want to.”
Michael couldn’t help but be impressed by her commitment to trying to please God, especially when moving here was clearly so hard for her. If only he could make her see the security she had by placing herself in the hands of a sovereign God.
“If you’ve come here to please God and not yourself, Jemimah, you can be confident that God will bless you. God promises that whatever he requires you to do, he will give you the strength and wisdom to carry it out. You don’t have to be the world’s best teacher your first year out, you know. It’s much more important to focus on God making his light shine out through you in seeking to honour him than to be worrying about getting every little thing right the first time.”
“But how can I be a good witness to anyone if I’m no good at my job as a teacher?”
“Give yourself time,” he said, seeing the need for reassurance in her moist blue eyes, “I’m sure you’ll be fine once you start up at school - it’s no different to all the prac. teaching you’ve done, except that there is no-one watching over your shoulder to notice every little mistake. I know I couldn’t stop worrying that I wouldn’t be any good as a teacher until I’d actually got through my first day. But after that every day gets easier.”
“You’re a teacher, too?”
“Yes - I teach high school English, History and Classical Languages. Goodness - I wouldn’t have presumed to have said you’ll be okay if I hadn’t faced some of the same challenges myself!”
Jemimah was staring at him in confusion, “But this morning you told me how your father said that he expected you to have at least one sermon prepared from all your study . . . and with your preaching today . . . I assumed you must be a pastor or at least studying theology.”
Michael smiled, strangely pleased that this young lady had remembered the details of their brief conversation, “I see. Yes, I am studying theology, that’s my main focus in fact. But I teach to support myself while I study part-time.”
He lowered his voice conspiratorially, “I have a confession too - I have never had a burning passion to teach either - but it’s an honest job that I can take satisfaction in doing well, until I’m older and hopefully God calls me into the ministry. I went to uni and chose the subjects that would help me in my theological studies like history, Greek and Hebrew. Then when I discovered I could do a further year and be qualified to teach, I realised that here was a job I could do while I studied, like an apprentice under an experienced pastor.”
“Why didn’t you just go to Bible College if you wanted to be a minister?”
“I could have - obviously that’s what my Dad and your pastor did - but having a theological degree isn’t a biblical requirement for the ministry. In my situation it seemed more legitimate for me to meet the biblical obligations of providing for myself and others, while I study under mature pastors and prepare myself as best God enables me. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me to go straight from school into full-time study for the ministry - otherwise when I’d finished, I’d still be young and inexperienced and just waiting around for a church to call me and with no qualifications to do anything else. This way I’m serving God in a useful way now while studying and gaining experience - and I can wait God’s time to see where he’ll lead me.”
Jemimah nodded, and Michael could see how tired she looked, “That’s probably more than enough of listening to me for one night - and your tea will be stone cold by now. Would you like me to make you another one to take back out there with you?”
“Yes, please - I don’t usually like tea at all - but it was actually very nice.”
Michael smiled to himself as he reheated the kettle, feeling warm inside as he thought how much more settled Jemimah seemed compared to when she’d first followed him into the kitchen. It might take her a while to settle in, but there were good people here in the Plains and he was sure she’d be fine.
Jemimah seemed preoccupied when he’d handed her cup to her and waited for her to precede him through the doorway to the lounge room. She took a few hesitant steps toward the door and then stopped just within the doorway and gave a shuddering sigh as she looked out into the other room.
“I just don’t think I can do it . . .” she murmured hopelessly to herself, slowly shaking her head.
Michael placed his hand gently on her shoulder. “What is it, Jemimah?”
“I don’t know what to do,” she answered in a tiny voice, closing her eyes tightly again. “I . . . I just want to go home.”
Michael’s heart sank - he’d been a fool to think that he could have solved all her problems just by talking to her for a few minutes. But what else could he do for her?
“It will all be okay, Jemimah,” he patted her shoulder reassuringly. “Of course it will be hard, but just lean on God and take it one day at a time. Don’t worry about next week or next month, just get through each day as you come to it. And it will get easier with every day that passes. Even if you feel very homesick - the term is only 10 weeks long and you’ll be so busy that it will be over before you know it - and then you’ll be back home for two weeks.”
When he stopped speaking Jemimah looked up at him sharply, frowning in confusion. Suddenly her lips parted in a beautiful smile and to Michael it was like the sun coming out from behind storm clouds.
“No, no - you’ve completely misunderstood me, I’m sorry. I don’t mean I want to go ‘Home’ home, to Newcastle,” her eyes sparkled with laughter. “I’m not planning on giving up just yet, I only meant getting back home into town.”
Michael laughed, delighted to see this other side of her. “Well, that’s a relief - I thought you wanted to pack up and go back home to Newcastle tonight.”
“No, as much as I’d like to I’ve made a commitment to stay in Jacaranda Plains at least three years and by God’s grace I’m determined to manage somehow. But I have no idea how I’m going to get through to the rest of tonight - I’m just feeling so exhausted that I don’t think I can face talking with anyone else and . . .”
Blotches of crimson began to colour her cheeks as she continued, “I know it must seem silly to you - but I honestly don’t know how to get home. My car is still at the church - and I have no idea how far away we are from there now. The Harts said they’ll drop me back there after supper, but they look like they’ll all be talking here for quite some time yet. And . . . and if I couldn’t even find my way in broad daylight . . . I’m never going to get back into town in the dark.”
“Well, that’s a problem that’s easily solved - Angie and I can take you to pick up your car now, and I’ll drive it into town for you, while you and Angie follow.” Michael was pleased to find something practical he could do to help.
“Would you really? It’s an awful lot of trouble for you both to go to.”
“Not at all, and I know Angie would do anything for a chance to drive my car,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ll go and arrange it with her now, if you’re ready to go. Would you like me to let the Harts know that we’re taking you? Then you won’t get caught back up in conversation.”
“Oh, yes please,” Jemimah replied immediately and then hesitated. “They won’t be offended, will they?”
“No, I’m sure they won’t - their property is in the opposite direction. Angie and I have to go back past the church to get home anyway. I won’t be long.” Michael excused himself and went into the lounge room, the gratitude he’d seen in her expression adding a zip to his step.
He made the arrangements quickly, not wanting to get sidetracked by anyone else. The sparkle in Jemimah’s eyes when she’d finally begun to relax intrigued him - and he looked forward to getting to know her a little better on the drive home.
© R. L. Brown 2006