“I shall leave my home, and forthward wander stoutly to the northward
Till I come by chance across it, and I’ll straightway settle down,
For there can’t be any hurry, nor the slightest cause for worry
Where the telegraph don’t reach you nor the railways run to town.”
From “Come-by-Chance” ~ Banjo Patterson
“Which flat is yours?”
Angie looked past Jemimah to the single-storied building beside them. The aging block of flats was built in a continuous line under a single tin roof, five small windows and five mismatched doors inserted in the fibro walls at regular intervals.
Jemimah sighed. Her new home looked even less inviting in the dim glow of the streetlight opposite than it had in the glaring light of day when she’d first seen it the day before.
“Number Three - the middle one.”
The front window right in the middle was depressingly dark, and it was hard to believe she’d spent most of the day working out how to get back there. Jemimah drew in a deep breath and, before she lost her nerve, invited Angie and her brother inside for supper.
“No, I won’t get out, if you don’t mind,” Angie replied. “This is the first chance I’ve had to drive Michael’s car in weeks - and I’m not keen to relinquish the wheel just yet. They say possession is nine tenths of the law, and while I’ve still got the keys in my hand he can just get in the other side and let me drive. But do pop in and see me at the office anytime you’re feeling bored or lonely.”
Swallowing her disappointment, Jemimah thanked Angie for the lift, taking Angie’s parting invitation as mere politeness. Just because she longed to spend more time with the Turnbulls didn't mean they were as keen for her company.
Michael was already walking toward her, her car keys in his hand, when she stepped out onto the footpath.
“Where do you leave your car, Jemimah? There’s a parking area behind the flats, isn’t there?”
There were five spaces at the end of the broken bitumen driveway, but an old car with no tyres and no registration plates filled the space allocated to Flat No. 3. One of the neighbours had told Jemimah the vehicle belonged to the bloke in number five and she should tell him to get it towed out of her spot, but having caught a glimpse of her burly neighbour that morning, Jemimah knew she wouldn’t be mentioning to him.
“No, there aren’t any spare spaces out the back. Just where you’ve parked is fine, thank you.”
Michael handed her the keys, frowning as he glanced back at the car. “Be careful not to leave anything at all in your car then. Unfortunately there are some kids around town who’ll break a window if there’s something worth grabbing inside.”
Jemimah nodded, feeling incredibly awkward standing there alone with him. She couldn’t make the polite offer of supper since Angie had already declined, and felt too overawed with shyness to put into words how very much she’d appreciated his help.
“Isn’t Angie getting out?” Michael asked, looking over at the car, and then chuckling. “Cheeky thing! I bet she thinks I won’t notice she’s still behind the wheel.”
His laughter broke the tension for Jemimah and she smiled back. “Apparently possession is nine tenths of the law . . .”
“That would be right. I’ll see you in then.”
As Michael followed her up the three concrete steps to her front door she tried to thank him for everything he had done for her.
“Don’t mention it,” he smiled warmly, leaning back against the door frame while he waited for Jemimah to find the right key. “It’s been my pleasure. And you’ve made it through your first day away from home - I’m sure it will only get easier from here.”
Intensely aware of his closeness in the still night, Jemimah found herself again at a loss for words. She bent her head as the heat rose into her cheeks, her embarrassment increasing when she fumbled the key so much she couldn’t turn it in the lock.
“Here, let me try.” Michael’s fingers brushed against hers as he reached out for the keys, sending burning sparks tingling through her skin. What is going on with me? she asked herself, unaccountably breathless as he stepped closer and tried the lock.
A moment later the door swung open into the thick darkness of the flat. “The lock’s just a bit stiff. I know we’ve got some graphite powder at home - I’ll mention to Dad to lend it to you.”
Jemimah responded absently, every other thought swallowed by the dismal prospect of going alone into her flat. There were no net curtains on the windows so she’d closed all the drapes before she left and not a chink of light relieved the oppressive blackness.
Trying to remember where the switch was, Jemimah took a hesitant step. She’d been too tired the day before to do anything except bring in her boxes and cases, and the pervading smell of old furnishings and past occupants gave the strong impression of a stranger’s presence in the flat.
She jumped nervously. “Yes?”
“Am I right in guessing you’ve never come home to an empty house at night before?”
Jemimah laughed weakly, Michael’s perception somehow easing the knot of anxiety in her chest. “Is it that obvious?”
“Yes - you should have seen your face drop when you opened the door. How about I go in and turn on all the lights for you?”
She stepped back out of the door to let him pass inside, feeling strangely light-headed as she waited on the step.
Michael Turnbull was simply too good to be true . . . eclipsing every ideal she’d ever dreamt of in a man. And yet Michael was real - and going to no end of trouble to help her. A warm sense of assurance filled her heart; if this man was here in Jacaranda Plains, everything would be okay.
Jemimah hardly dared to form the prayer that was rising in her heart, “Lord, could he be your reason for bringing me all the way out here?” Had God heard and finally begun to answer her prayers for a godly husband of her own?
Within minutes Michael was beside her again, light spilling out of the flat and onto the doorstep where they stood. “There you go; every light in the place is on and I even checked the bathroom and behind the shower curtain. I guarantee there is no-one lurking inside the wardrobe, and definitely no monsters under the bed.”
Jemimah gazed up at him. “Thank you! I wouldn’t have thought it possible that anyone could have realised how I felt.”
“I’ve got two little sisters, don’t forget. I hope someone would do at least the same for either of them if they found themselves alone in a strange town,” he said with a warm smile. “Anyway, it’s time you got yourself to bed. And all the best with school - I know that you’ll do fine.” Michael turned as if he were about to go but then paused. “Would you like me to pray with you, Jemimah?”
Jemimah nodded, tears springing into her eyes. Michael leaned his head down close to hers and prayed quietly; “Lord, we thank you for your many blessings to us today, and especially for bringing Jemimah amongst us. We ask that you might bless her with a real sense of your closeness, and that you will strengthen her to do your will. Please watch over her and be near her as she begins this new chapter in her life. In Jesus’ name we humbly pray, Amen.”
“Amen,” Jemimah whispered, feeling this might turn out to be the most wonderful chapter in her life so far.
Michael straightened up. “Goodnight then,” his voice seemed a little husky. “I hope I catch up with you again at the end of the term.”
Jemimah’s head snapped up, his words hitting her like an unexpected blow. “Why - where will you be?”
“Didn’t I mention that I was only back home for the holidays? I teach at a private school in Sydney. My first day is this Thursday and the students will be back on Friday. Unlike you rural teachers who get an extra week’s holiday for being in the heat-zone.”
He smiled wryly as he stepped down from the doorstep. “It’s kind of funny isn’t it? Both of us travelling pretty much the same journey in opposite directions at the beginning and end of each holiday.”
Jemimah nodded, not seeing anything funny about it at all, and was relieved that Michael had turned to leave before her tears began yet again.
She shut the door behind him and walked blindly through the flat to her bedroom, leaving every one of the lights blazing as she collapsed onto the bed. So she was a fool after all - the too-good-to-be-true Michael Turnbull was disappearing from her life as suddenly as he appeared in it.
Obviously he was not the reason God had brought her to Jacaranda Plains after all . . .
Michael was so preoccupied with his concerns for the young lady he’d left alone in the dingy flat that he completely forgot the ribbing he’d planned to give his sister for staking out her claim behind the wheel.
“What took you so long?” Angie asked, driving off the moment he pulled the car door shut behind him.
“Hmm? Poor kid, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was terrified of being on her own. It would have been nice if you’d gone in with her.”
“You were already out there - she didn’t need both of us.” Her voice was a tad defensive and Michael frowned as he looked over at her.
“I really hope you’ll look out for Jemimah, Ange. She’s sure to find it hard going, especially to start with.”
“Of course I will! I wish you’d give me even a little credit.”
Angie picked up speed as they left the town and turned the radio a few clicks louder. The repetitive pop beat grated on Michael’s strangely raw nerves and, wishing he had the confidence to believe his sister would think about someone’s needs other than her own, he reached over to switch the channel to his usual classical station.
“Aw, Michael! Why can’t we listen to something from within in the last century for a change?” she complained, “It was even a Christian station.”
“My car,” he replied bluntly, his thoughts already back with Jemimah Parker. He was sure he’d seen tears in her eyes just as he was leaving . . . but there was nothing more he could have done. Maybe he should have suggested Angie stay the night with her?
Michael glanced across at his sister’s stern profile, knowing that if she hadn’t thought of it herself, she would have resented him asking. He forced himself to look away from the red needle on the speedo and leaned back against the headrest.
He knew God would be watching over Jemimah Parker, and that between his family and the rest of the church she’d surely be looked after. But even so, Michael found himself wishing he wouldn’t be driving seven hours away from Jacaranda Plains the day after tomorrow, and quite unconsciously began to wonder if there was any way to delay it.
“Get up you lazy brute!”
The woman’s harsh tone jolted Jemimah from deep sleep and she stared at the grubby ceiling, no idea where she was. Her mouth was dry and her heart pounded as she lay still, paralysed with fear. The woman’s voice came again, filled with venom, “You’ll lose your job if you don’t bother to get there on time - now get up before I throw a bucket of water on you!”
Jemimah heard the creaking of a bed through the wall and a coarse male voice swore. Her pent-up breath escaped in a rush as she realised it was only the couple in the flat next door. So much for the peace and quiet of the country . . .
As her heart began to ease its frenetic pace, Jemimah slowly became aware that she was still wearing Marlene’s dress and every light in her unit was burning. She’d fallen asleep on the bed where she’d dropped in exhaustion straight after Michael had left.
She screwed her eyes closed tightly - the miserable thoughts she’d taken to bed descending like a thick gloom over her again. Not only was she alone here in a horrible, dirty flat but she’d been a dismal failure at coping with her first day in town. And then she’d met the most wonderful man in the world only to discover he wouldn’t be part of her life after all.
It was probably all for the best anyway, Jemimah decided, rolling painfully to the side of the bed. There was no way a man like Michael Turnbull could have the least interest in a naïve little girl like her. What was it he had said? "I’ve got two little sisters, don’t forget . . .” It had been foolish to read anything more into his actions than the kindness of someone acting like a big brother.
The bedside clock showed it wasn’t even six a.m., but with all the windows still closed the air inside the flat was hot and suffocatingly close. As little as Jemimah wanted to face the day, there was no hope of getting back to sleep now and she climbed painfully out of bed.
Clearly remembering her exertions in changing the tyre the day before, she wasn’t surprised to discover that every muscle ached - but she hadn’t expected the raw pain in her heart from knowing that she wouldn’t be seeing Michael Turnbull again anytime soon. It made no sense to feel so deeply over a man she’d only met yesterday - but she did.
She’d never felt such a strong drawing toward anyone before, and the unfamiliar emotions were disturbing. Was it only now, in her early twenties that she was experiencing the painful awakening of a first teenage crush?
Jemimah made her way through to the bathroom, and while the shower provided some relief to her stiff body, it did nothing to soothe her mind. Everything had seemed manageable after Michael had come to her rescue yesterday - but his warm words of encouragement seemed cold and worthless in his absence. Now she felt worse than if she'd never met him.
It was only when Jemimah returned to her bedroom to dress that she was struck by the foolishness of her thinking. It had been God who had answered her prayer for help through Michael Turnbull, God who had uplifted her by that kind young man’s words - and it would be God who would continue to provide everything she needed even if he didn’t plan for Michael to be part of her life. Michael’s kindness had been an outworking of the Lord’s blessing and even with her disappointment over his departure she should be rejoicing in the Lord.
Even if rejoicing is hard work just now, Jemimah sighed as another few snatches of argument came through the wall. She reached for her Bible and climbed into bed, ashamed that yet again she had been forgetting to lean on God’s strength.
A few minutes later the walls shook as the man next door slammed his front door shut and then all was quiet. Her thoughts finally finding peace in the contemplation of God’s promises, Jemimah drifted back off sleep.
Jemimah had heard that the best thing for sore muscles was to put them back to work and by later that afternoon had discovered that not only had the remedy worked wonders for her stiffness - it helped chase away her blues as well.
Filthy from scrubbing the flat from floor to ceiling and steaming from unpacking and organising her new home through the heat of the day, Jemimah took another quick shower before dressing in carefully pressed clothes. She’d done everything she could to make her flat as homely as possible and now it was time to face the next hurdle - going out alone in this new town.
The general store was only a few blocks away and the need for fresh milk and bread gave her a good incentive to venture from the comparative security of her flat. She couldn’t drive there - reverse angle parking was something she’d never mastered - and walking would provide an opportunity to meet a couple of her neighbours along her way. She couldn’t hide inside forever, and it would have to be easier getting to know the town’s people a few at a time before the first day of school came around.
Jemimah checked that her rose-trimmed straw hat was on straight before stepping outside and closing the door behind her. A well-worn track cut across the grass in front of the flats and she could smell the faint scent of hot bitumen as she walked along it. All the roads within the town proper were tarred, and the air hovered above the street in a shimmering haze.
She let her eyes roam over the front yards of the houses she passed, some with attractive gardens and others completely bare, and exchanged a polite greeting with an elderly woman keeping a vigilant watch from an old couch on her porch.
Walking past the next few houses was much more uncomfortable. The people gathered on the doorsteps and front verandahs stopped their conversations to stare at her without offering so much as a raised hand in greeting. Under their stern scrutiny she was all at once aware of her alien appearance - the extreme whiteness of her skin glowing brightly under the harsh sun - and she bowed her head and hurried on.
It was a relief to turn the corner into the main street, where she felt it would be easier to blend in with the people going about their business among the several shops and offices. The school where she would be working lay a block away to the left, but the general store/take-away/post-office was to the right, beyond an agricultural supply depot, a mechanical workshop and a large pub.
Jemimah had only reached the drive-way of the agricultural store before being stopped by a young woman in low-cut shorts and a singlet top and pushing a pram.
“You must be the new teacher,” the woman said, pausing to size her up.
“Yes - I’m Jemimah Parker.”
“I’m Cindy Porter. Got two kids up at the school, Tyler and Jayden. Heard you had arrived.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jemimah answered and then spent the next ten minutes listening while the young woman spoke to her at an incessant pace. Cindy Porter covered the failings of last year’s teacher and the foibles of the current head mistress before detailing the various interests and abilities of her children. Each time the baby in the pram squalled in protest at the enforced stop, Cindy jiggled the pram vigorously, finally giving the infant a biscuit to gnaw on when the jiggle-method failed to work.
“And what about you?” The young mother turned her attention back to Jemimah. “You’re not married. Got a man back home, or are you on the lookout for a bloke?”
The presumptuously personal question took Jemimah by complete surprise. She mentally groped for a polite evasion, but came up with nothing.
“I’ve really got to keep going, if you’ll excuse me,” Jemimah told her, looking down at her watch as though she hadn’t heard the last question. “I’m just on my way to buy bread and milk - do you know what time the shop closes?”
“Depends on old Mrs Chester’s mood really. Somewhere around five thirty usually - should still be open for a bit yet. No need to rush.”
“I’ve left a casserole in the oven though, so I’d better keep moving,” Jemimah excused herself again. She hadn’t lied about the meal she’d prepared, although in all honesty it would be baking away for an hour or so yet. Perhaps heading out into the main street hadn’t been such a great idea after all . . .
It was only another few hundred metres before Jemimah was stopped by an older couple, who welcomed her warmly and after plying her with questions began to reminisce about the town in earlier days. Just as she was about to make her break from them, they were joined by another woman, and the introductions began all over again. Every time Jemimah managed to excuse herself and continue along the main street toward the store, someone else would call out to her and keep her chatting for another fifteen minutes or so.
By the time she finally reached the now closed general store, it was nearly six and she felt sure she must have met half the people of Jacaranda Plains. Although Jemimah could do without the bread and milk, she felt rather bereft about returning home with nothing and having to brave the whole ordeal again the next day.
Turning around to retrace her steps, Jemimah noticed the lights still on in the Grimshaw’s offices on the opposite side of the street. Through the barred front windows she could see Angie Turnbull’s gleaming copper head behind the reception desk. She hesitated, not knowing whether to call in and say hello or not. Angie may have just been being polite with her offer, but the thought of even a few minutes in her cheerful company was very tempting.
Two men looking pointedly in Jemimah’s direction as they climbed out of a ute in front of the pub decided the issue and she quickly crossed the street.
“Angie?” Jemimah poked her head inside the door, “I didn’t know you worked this late. Are you busy?”
The girl’s head snapped up and she greeted her with a wide smile. “Come on in. I’m not usually this late - but Mr Grimshaw had an urgent document to be completed. Can you wait? I just have to run this through the copier and I’ll be done.”
While Angie disappeared behind a partition, Jemimah let herself in and took a seat on a leather lounge. The solace of the empty waiting room was as refreshing as its crisp air-conditioning and she looked around the office with interest. Although the outside of the building was as understated as its neighbours, the interior was as modern as any Sydney law firm’s and she recognised the work of a couple of well-known Australian artists on the walls.
A few minutes later Angie joined her, a patent leather handbag over her arm, and Jemimah followed her out of the main door. Angie tugged off her jacket with a groan after locking the door behind them. “It’s long summer days like this that I don’t really mind staying late.”
“Do you need to turn out the lights?”
“Oh, no - Geoff’s still in his office, and will be there for hours yet. He’s had some last minute changes on a contested matter that’s before the court tomorrow - that’s why I had to get that work done for him tonight. Did you just come out for a stroll?”
“I came out for milk and bread about an hour and a half ago, but it took a little longer to get up the street than I’d anticipated.”
Angie looked at her friend’s empty hands and laughed, “And by the time everyone had stopped you for a chat, the shop was closed?”
Jemimah nodded. “It doesn’t matter though - Mum packed enough long-life milk for me to survive for weeks yet. It just seemed like a good idea to start getting to know my way around.” She sighed involuntarily, thinking of what an ordeal it had become.
“And now you don’t think it was such a good idea after all?” Angie chuckled at her. “Why don’t I drop you home? Greg Grimshaw gave Gabi a lift home earlier after Geoff asked me to work back, so I have her car.”
Jemimah thanked her and walked with her to the small silver hatchback, wondering if it would be too forward to invite Angie to join her for tea. She was just beginning to worry over it when Angie suggested the idea herself only moments after starting the car.
“It’s not that often that I get the car - and it seems a shame to just go straight home. We could get a meal at the pub first if you like.”
“Would you mind just coming to my place?” Jemimah asked, shuddering at the thought of the hotel, “I’ve already got a casserole in the oven . . . if that’s okay with you?”
“Oh, yes. I’d much rather that than sitting in the noisy pub - but I didn’t want to ask. I’d get in trouble if Dad or Michael knew I’d invited myself over for tea,” Angie said with an expressive roll of her eyes. “Have you got enough for two?”
“I’ve got enough for ten! I had to use up the fresh meat and veg I brought up with me - so I’ll be eating beef casserole for a week as it is.”
“In that case I can tell them it was my good deed of the day. Thanks Jemimah, today’s turning out much better than I could have hoped for.”
Angie’s comment sent a warm glow of pleasure through Jemimah. She was glad Angie wanted to spend more time with her, and she looked forward to learning more about her - and her family.
Maybe I’ll find out a little more about Michael, too . . . Jemimah felt guilty even as the thought crossed her mind, but she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Michael Turnbull all day. Surely it wasn’t so terribly wrong to hope his own sister might mention him?
© R. L. Brown 2006