Jacaranda Plains

Chapter Ten

The city folk go to and fro
Behind a prison’s bars,
They never feel the breezes blow
And never see the stars;
They never hear in blossomed trees
The music low and sweet
Of wild birds making melodies,
Nor catch the little laughing breeze,
That whispers in the wheat.

From “The Old Australian Ways” ~ Banjo Patterson

“Come on Angie, please get up, they’ll be here any minute now,” Jemimah pleaded with the inert figure on the couch.

“Leave me alone!” Angie snapped back, burying her face deeper into the cushions, “I said to give me another ten minutes!”

“And I did - twice. Have it your way then, I give up!”

Jemimah went back into the kitchen and finished setting the table. She’d been woken by her neighbours again just before six, and had already had her devotions and showered before beginning preparations for breakfast. The bowls of chopped onion, mushrooms and bacon stood beside a plate of sliced tomatoes and a mound of grated cheese. Jemimah looked at the ingredients and sighed. She wanted everything perfect - but without it looking as though she had gone to too much trouble.

After one more glance at the clock she switched the oven on to heat the plates, and decided to begin cooking. The onions and bacon were just beginning to sizzle in the pan when she heard a car pull up. Telling herself to breathe slowly, Jemimah emptied the pan onto a heated plate and put the slices of tomato on to fry, before running to open the front door.

Gabi and Michael were just coming up the steps, and returned Jemimah’s greeting warmly. Dressed in a crisp sleeveless blouse and knee-length skirt, Gabi looked as cool and fresh as she had on Sunday, but in casual clothes Michael looked completely different than he had in a suit and tie. The white polo shirt he wore tucked into faded blue jeans emphasised his broad shoulders and his plaited leather belt drew Jemimah’s attention to the narrowness of his hips and waist.

Just seeing him again made Jemimah’s heart skip erratically, and she quickly pulled the door back for them to enter. Gabi handed her a basket of eggs and Jemimah thanked her, glad of the distraction.

“That smells so good, I’m instantly starving! Is Angie up yet?” Michael asked, coming inside behind Gabi. Jemimah shook her head and he laughed as he walked past her and saw his sister still curled up on the couch.

“Come on, sleepy head! Time to rise and shine!” He pulled Angie by the arms and she sat up, head in her hands.

“Here’s your clothes, Angie - why don’t you shower and get dressed while we get breakfast ready,” Gabi held out the overnight bag that Michael had put down by the door and Angie looked up with a deep sigh. Her clothes were crumpled and her hair stuck out at right angles like a red toilet brush.

“By the look of you I bet you didn’t get to bed much before one,” Michael said, shaking his head as he looked down at her, “Silly girl - you’ll be regretting it by five this afternoon!”

Angie glared at him and picked up the bag of clothes, and headed towards the bathroom.

“See what I mean about Michael!” she hissed at Jemimah on her way past, “Just like I told you - I’m not even allowed to stay up late without a sermon!”

Jemimah smiled to herself as the bathroom door slammed, and turned back toward the kitchen. As she passed Michael, he caught her eye with a grin.

“See what I mean about Angie? You can’t say I didn’t warn you about what she’d be like in the morning.”

She couldn’t help laughing at his comment - and at the feeling that she’d just been talking to two facets of the same personality. She could imagine that life at the Turnbull’s would not be dull when Angie and Michael were both home. Still smiling, she went into the kitchen where Gabi had just flipped over the tomatoes in the pan.

“This smells wonderful already,” Gabi turned to her with a warm smile. “How can I help?”

“Oh, thank you. If you wouldn’t mind separating the eggs -” Jemimah paused, suddenly aware of Michael’s presence behind her. Even without looking at him, she was powerfully aware of just how . . . masculine . . . he was. She turned to see him leaning against the fridge, looking down at her.

“While you girls get cracking, may I borrow your keys, Jemimah?” he asked. “I thought I’d have a quick look at your front lock before breakfast.”

“Yes - sure - thank you so much.” Aware she was nearly stammering in her embarrassment, Jemimah dashed to her room for the keys. It was a relief when Michael had taken them to the front door and she could return to the refuge of the kitchen.

Gabrielle looked up. She had nearly finished with the eggs for the first omelette, a neat pile of shells stacked beside the bowls of yolks and whites. “I’ve brought some fresh herbs too,” she told Jemimah, nodding toward the basket, “I didn’t know if you’d want to use them or not, but I thought I’d bring them along.”

With a grateful smile, Jemimah lifted the leafy bunch from the basket, instantly dismissing the dried seasoning she’d resigned herself to. As she chopped them, a piquant aroma rose up around her and she breathed in appreciatively.

“These smell wonderful. Did you grow them?”

“Yes - I love gardening, especially with the old-fashioned varieties. I’m part of a seed club that exchanges heirloom seeds by mail and tries to keep the old varieties of herbs and vegetables in circulation.”

While she began whisking the egg whites, Jemimah asked Gabi more about her hobby. They had cooked the first few omelettes and were still chatting about her garden when Michael returned, putting the keys down on the bar.

“You should find that a lot easier to open now,” he told Jemimah before walking over to his sister, and tenderly putting his hand up to rub the back of her neck. “How are you going to manage without your garden Gabi, when you marry Ashley? Or are you trying not to think about it?”

“Oh, I’ve thought about it. But Nan had promised to look after the roses for me, and Ashley is getting me some huge tubs to put in the back courtyard of his unit so I can still grow my herbs.” She sighed, and turned to Jemimah, “I’m very fussy with the recipes I cook and I’m just not happy unless I have exactly the right herbs. Some people enjoy improvising with their ingredients, but I like precision when I cook.”

“You like precision in everything, Gabi, not just your cooking,” Michael said fondly, passing her another few eggs as Jemimah poured Gabi’s yolks into the whites she’d beaten into an airy froth.

His sister laughed, “That’s true. And yet I’m marrying a Hart! It’s going to be interesting, isn’t it?”

Jemimah slid the omelette out of the pan and added it to the stack and poured in another. “I get the impression the Harts are pretty laid back.”

“Very laid back,” Michael agreed. “But you and Ashley make a great team, Gabi. You might even end up relaxing a little about things - and who knows what you might do for the Harts. They might even turn up at church on time under your influence! Do you need any more eggs, Jemimah?”

“No, those last two will do it. And the shower’s just stopped - I think we’re going pretty well for time.”

“If Angie’s just getting out the shower now, we’ll be finished eating before she joins us,” Michael said. “Unless she skips the beauty routine!”

“I’ll let her know we’re nearly ready,” Gabi handed Jemimah the last bowlful of eggs. “She can get ready after Michael’s gone.”

Gabi went through to the bathroom, leaving Jemimah and Michael alone in the tiny kitchen. Knowing he was watching her, Jemimah felt incredibly self-conscious as she poured the final omelette into the pan. The tenderness Michael had treated Gabi with had absolutely melted her and she was at a loss to think of anything she could say to make conversation. The more she came to know about Michael Turnbull, the more incredible he seemed to be. Her concentration faltering, she added the cooked ingredients before sprinkling some cheese across the omelette and folding it in half in the pan.

Too early, she berated herself as it tore in several places and the unset egg mixture flowed out of one side, I’ll have to make sure I get this one. Hoping Michael wasn’t watching too closely, she stared into the pan, longing for it to cook so she could get it out of sight. By the time it was just beginning to brown her own cheeks were burning and she was glad to be able to hide it in the oven with the others.

She breathed out slowly, glad the breakfast was ready without any disasters other than that last omelette - but at a loss to know what to do with herself now that the cooking was over. Michael was leaning back against the bench, his arms comfortably folded across his chest, and Jemimah’s mind was still a total blank. Without looking up, she scooped up the empty bowls and took them over to the sink to begin washing up.

“I’m very impressed,” Michael picked up a tea towel and came to stand beside her as she filled the sink with water. “And not just with the way you cook like a magician. I’m impressed by seeing how hard you are working to settle in here, even though I know how difficult it is for you. As soon as I walked in I could see the difference in this flat. I don’t know what you’ve done to transform it - but it looked pretty dismal when I left you here on Sunday night, yet already it looks like a home.”

His voice was quiet so that he could not be overhead, and there was something so gentle in his tone that it almost made tears come into Jemimah’s eyes as she listened.

“And it was pretty brave inviting us around for breakfast - I could tell on the phone that you were a bit unsure about it even when you asked. But you won’t have any problems settling in here if you’re prepared to make the effort with other people like you have with us,” Michael took the washed bowl from her hands and began wiping it. “Angie told Nan on the phone last night that you’d walked over and looked her up at work, after spending a good hour or more chatting with people in the main street yesterday. That would have taken some courage to do. Is it as hard as you thought it would be?”

Jemimah shrugged, at the forefront of her mind all the things she’d learnt about Michael and his family while talking with Angie last night. “I find it very difficult starting from scratch getting to know people - when you know nothing about them or anyone else. It’s hard to know whether you’re going to say or do everything wrong. Was it like that for you when you moved to Sydney?”

If Michael noticed her effort to steer the conversation away from herself, he didn’t let on. “I have to admit that I find it pretty easy getting to know people. And I had the advantage of boarding with a family I already knew - I mainly got to know the rest of the church through them - so it wasn’t all new in the same way it is for you. But then again, you know us now, and the Harts - you can build up your friendships with other people from there. You’ll get to know everyone in the church through them, and Marlene knows everyone connected with the school. You’re going to do fine, Jemimah.”

Although she had already scrubbed every last trace of food from the final pan, she continued to wipe at it as though her life depended on it. Having seen the way Michael treated Gabi, she felt certain his concern for her was only brotherly; yet she still found both the tenderness in his voice and his close proximity overwhelming. She couldn’t think of any way of responding which wouldn’t betray her foolish reaction to him.

She was both disappointed and relieved to hear Gabi and Angie talking as they came toward the kitchen. They would all eat breakfast together now, and then he would be gone.

“I thought breakfast would take a lot longer to make than that!” Angie complained, coming into the kitchen with her hair wrapped in a towel like a turban on top of her head. It was in comical contrast to her neat white blouse and short navy skirt.

“Jemimah is a pretty impressive cook,” Michael said, “and she had all of the preparation done before Gabi and I got here. If we’re lucky it might just rub off on you, Angie - despite your allergy to the kitchen!”

“Well, don’t think I’ll ever be making breakfast for you, Michael - not unless Gabi’s got something noxious in her herb garden I could slip in!”

“Now I’m worried,” Jemimah laughed, taking the plate of omelettes over to the little round table. “What kind of unusual herbs do you grow, Gabi?”

“I actually gave up on the home remedies a few years ago - now I don’t dabble in anything other than catmint for Nan’s kittens! But poor Angie was on the receiving end of a few of my recipes in the early days. Old books are full of potions for shinier hair and clearer skin and so on - and she used to try anything I gave her.”

“Now look what’s become of her!” Michael teased, as they sat down at the table.

“Just hurry up and eat your breakfast, so you can go back to Sydney and leave us in peace!” Angie threw her wet towel at his head, but he caught it easily and folded it on the back of a chair.

“Shall I say grace before she throws anything else?” he said, looking to Jemimah.

Jemimah nodded, and was surprised when both Gabi and Angie reached out and took her hands in theirs. Glancing up she saw that they had also both joined hands with Michael as he bowed his head to pray. Bowing her own head, Jemimah felt a special joy in being included in this family ritual, something her own family had never done when they had prayed. There was still a sense of unreality about being so far from home and caught up in a whole new life that was different in so many little ways.

After the prayer, Jemimah served the omelettes onto each plate with a few slices of fried tomato and a garnish of parsley, making sure she kept for herself the one she had ruined while distracted by Michael’s presence. She was relieved that even it tasted good - and was pleased to see Gabi glow from her praise when she complimented her on the distinctive flavour of the herbs.

“Why didn’t you bring me a suit and jacket to wear?” Angie asked her sister, as she started on her breakfast, “I’ve got to be up at the Court today, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” Gabi answered, unperturbed, “but it’s going to be up around forty again - you’ll be hot enough as it is in there.”

“Who’s coming for court this week that you want to impress? Any fancy lawyers coming up from the city for this big case?” Michael asked.

“Don’t you talk!” Angie returned with a snigger. “Look at you - fresh haircut and everything for the benefit of all your girls in Sydney!”

“As if any of the students would notice their teacher’s haircut,” he rolled his eyes and turned to Jemimah. “Angie finds it quite amusing that I’m the only male teacher at the moment at an all-girls’ school. She imagines I must think it’s great being surrounded by hundreds of giggling teenage girls.”

“I don’t know anyone else who got over 300 Christmas cards!” Angie said.

“Every other teacher at the school. That’s just what the students do.”

“But I bet they didn’t have messages like yours, ‘Dear Mr Turnbull, thank you for such a wonderful year . . . it is an inspiration learning from you . . .I can’t wait to be back in your class again next year . . .’” Angie mimicked in a breathy, high-pitched voice, “Or that any other teacher got nearly fifty boxes of chocolates for Christmas.”

“And who ate most of those?” he replied, unconcerned. “You haven’t even mentioned the two dozen hankies and twenty plus coffee mugs. All the pupils give their teachers a Christmas gift - and I receive so many because it just happens that because of the subjects I teach, I actually see every single student at some point in the week. Despite what you think Angie - I’m nothing more than a boring old teacher to all of them, who they think works them too hard and gives them way too much homework.”

Jemimah couldn’t keep the smile from her lips as she looked across at Michael, who had turned his attention back to his breakfast. Could he really be so unaware of what teenage girls would think of a young, handsome teacher like him? She could picture his classes sitting mesmerised by his voice as he read Shakespeare aloud, and sighing about him as he walked past them in the corridors. The idea that because he set exams and handed out homework, the girls would see nothing more in him than a teacher was as absurd as the comic strip concept of Superman becoming unrecognisable as mild mannered Clark Kent just by wearing glasses.

Angie caught her eyes, and grinned back, obviously reading Jemimah’s mind.

“He has no idea!” she mouthed to Jemimah, rolling her eyes at her brother. Michael glanced up as Angie and Jemimah giggled.

“So you think it’s funny too, Jemimah?” He put his cutlery down on his empty plate with an air of resignation.

“It is an unusual position to be in,” she answered, trying not to laugh at the face Angie was pulling. “Isn’t it awkward sometimes?”

“Only times like this when my little sister takes the mickey out of me. At school I’m treated no differently to the rest of the staff - except that I don’t do sport with the girls, which is great for me. I get all my free periods on a Friday afternoon - which is a nice luxury and means I get an early start and can get back here on the Friday night when I come back home to Jacaranda Plains.” He glanced at his watch and frowned, “But I’d better keep moving, it’s going to be a long day; I’ve got a few people to call in on on my way through. It seems everyone who knows I’m going today has something for me to drop off with friends or relatives en-route.”

Michael picked up his plate and took it through to the kitchen, “Thanks very much, Jemimah - I think that was the most delicious breakfast I’ve ever eaten.” As he came back past the table he leant down and kissed Gabi and Angie goodbye.

“I’ll call tonight when I arrive in Sydney,” he told his sisters as he headed for the door. “And be good!” he added with a teasing wink to Angie and then turned to Jemimah as she held the door open for him.

“Goodbye, Jemimah. I hope everything goes well for you this term. I’ll be praying for you.”

Closing the screen door behind him, Jemimah breathed a quiet sigh of relief, silently thanking God for answered prayer. Apart from her nervousness when she’d been alone with Michael in the kitchen, the morning had gone even better than she’d hoped. Knowing she had conducted herself in front of him more like an adult than the foolish child she’d been on Sunday night had restored a little of her battered self-respect, and she was still glowing from his kind words of praise.

But she’d learnt a lot about Michael that morning and she hoped it would help her break free of her growing attraction to him. The concern he had shown for her had given her hope that he might have some interest in her too - but seeing how he related to his sisters had put his kindness to her into a dampening perspective. He was obviously at ease with young women, and his attention to Jemimah could be nothing deeper than friendly concern.

She smiled wryly and turned away from the door. After seeing Michael’s blasé attitude to the interest of his female students, Jemimah was sure that he would be astonished that she could have interpreted his kindness to her in any other way. Angie was right that her brother had no idea of the effect he might have on young ladies - and realising that put Jemimah’s infatuation firmly in its place. She was just another giggling school girl who had been swept off her feet by the completely unaware Mr Turnbull.

Gabi had already begun stacking the empty plates and Angie excused herself to return to the bathroom to do her make-up and hair. Jemimah gathered up the dishes and took them over to the sink.

“I always feel pretty flat when Michael goes back to Sydney,” Gabi said, following her in the kitchen. “I really miss him when he’s gone. You’d think I’d be used to it by now - but I guess I still feel like he really belongs here with us.”

“How long ago did he move to Sydney?” Jemimah asked, filling the sink with hot, soapy water.

“About ten years ago now - but in some ways it seems like he’s never really moved away. Although Michael works in Sydney through the term he comes back every holiday and whenever he can in between. And because he rings home every weekend he stays in touch with everything that’s going on here, so he just blends straight back in. He really doesn’t like living in the city at all - and he can’t wait to get out into the farm and get his hands dirty the moment he gets back.”

“Why does he stay in Sydney then? Couldn’t he study theology with your Dad here instead? I get the impression that they are very close.”

“They certainly are, and Michael’s very much like Dad in many ways. But they both thought it would be best if he went somewhere else - apart from the fact that Dad mightn’t be as objective with him as someone else would, it wouldn’t be easy taking on any kind of leadership in the church he’s grown up in. When people have known you from childhood, it can be difficult for them to accept you as an adult.”

Gabi picked up a tea towel and began to dry the dishes as Jemimah passed them to her. “Besides, Pastor McCrae can really use Michael’s help. His church is a lot larger than ours, and Michael has quite a lot of responsibility. He leads several study groups, and preaches fairly regularly there and at a few other churches during term time. Though it’s a shame I don’t get to hear him preach very often - I think God has given him a real gift in explaining the Word of God and I love the chance to hear him using it.”

Angie came in from the bathroom just as her sister finished speaking. Emptying the sink, Jemimah turned around, amazed at Angie’s transformation. Her face was meticulously made-up, concealing all traces of tiredness and her hair was swept back elegantly into a tortoiseshell comb.

“You look like a new person Angie - but do you really feel like one?” Jemimah asked.

Angie sank into the dining room chair and leant onto the table supporting her head with her hands. “No - I feel shocking. Do you happen to have any coffee in that well stocked pantry of yours? I think a really strong black coffee would do me the world of good.”

Jemimah put the kettle on and a few minutes later she and Gabi joined Angie at the table.

“And you made me think Michael was an ogre for giving you a hard time about staying up late - seeing you this morning makes me think he has a good case.”

“That’s what’s so annoying. I hate that he’s always right!” Angie picked up her coffee and looked accusingly at Jemimah. “How come you look so fresh? You were up just as late as me!”

“It’s all an act - I can’t function at all without a full night’s sleep,” Jemimah told her. “I wouldn’t have stayed up if I hadn’t still been on holidays. The minute you two leave for work, I’m going straight back to bed.”

“That makes me feel even worse - knowing you’ll be catching up on your sleep while I can’t. And it’s going to be a big day with court - I’ll be running back and forward between the office and the court all day.”

“That reminds me,” Gabi said, picking up her empty cup and taking it over to the sink. “I made you sandwiches for lunch, Angie - since you probably won’t get much of a break, you can eat them on the run. And we’d really better go now too, it’s nearly a quarter to nine. ”

She turned to Jemimah, “Thank you so much for having us, it’s been lovely. And we’re really looking forward to having you around to our place for lunch this Sunday - Dad and Nan can’t wait to meet you either.”

“How is your dad?”

“Not too bad, thank you. He is still uncomfortable and itchy - but the sickness he felt when he was first coming down with it has passed, so he’s nearly back to his usual self.”

“Yes - the respite was short lived!” added Angie, gathering up her belongings. She thanked Jemimah for her hospitality and then paused before asking, “Do you still want to have me over Friday night as well?”

“Absolutely. But only if you promise to go to bed by ten-thirty at the latest! I’ve arranged to meet the head-mistress at the school on Monday morning and get things organised with her before the students start back on Thursday, so I’ve got to keep to some kind of a routine over the weekend. ”

“Enjoy your last few days of freedom then, Jemimah. Have you got any plans for today?”

“Not apart from trying to make it to the shop before it closes again. I’ll make sure I start out even earlier this afternoon.” Jemimah was still a little daunted by getting out amongst everyone all over again, but Michael’s comments had certainly encouraged her to make the effort. “I’d better not keep you talking though, or you’ll both run late. Leave the cups, Gabi - I’ll do all that later.”

A couple of hours later and with the town of Gunnedah disappearing in his rear-view mirror, Michael turned back onto the Kamilaroi Highway. It was always something of a significant point in the journey for him as he headed away from the corner of the world which felt uniquely his own to merge into the greater stream of traffic flowing to and fro into the rest of the state.

The so-familiar landmarks that usually counted down the time remaining until his journey’s end provided no satisfying sense of progress this time, marking instead the ever-increasing distance he was putting between himself and Jacaranda Plains.

Michael rubbed his forehead, as though he could wipe away the frown that formed as he stared along the shimmering road. There was no reason for him to feel so flat about returning to Sydney. He’d had a refreshing break and was looking forward to getting back amongst his students and colleagues at school and he had great plans for ministering alongside Pastor McCrae in the congregation in Sydney this coming year. And yet . . . he felt a total lack of desire to keep on driving.

There was no unfinished business behind him in Jacaranda Plains - he’d caught up with everyone over the long holidays and carried out everything he’d had on his wish-list for his time back home. Even the concern that had preyed on his mind these last few days about the young new teacher had finally been relieved. Jemimah Parker was going to be fine, and despite his doubts it seemed as though Angie really was going to take her under her wing.

And being friends with a young lady like Jemimah will do Angie a world of good, too. He smiled at the contrast between the two girls that morning; Angie her ruffled spit-fire self and Jemimah in a long, pale blue dress with her gentle graciousness evident in every word and movement.

He could still see Jemimah leaning intently over the dishes in the sink just before breakfast, her eyes shyly lowered and her creamy skin glowing pink when he’d complimented her. Even though his intention had been to encourage her, he’d meant every word of what he’d said about how well she was settling in. The truth was that he’d been rather surprised by how much progress she’d made after such a shaky start that Sunday. There seemed to be a hidden strength there that perhaps neither of them had suspected that evening.

Michael was very thankful to have been able to witness that before heading back to Sydney and although he would continue to uphold Jemimah in prayer, he was now confident she would do just fine in Jacaranda Plains - even without him watching out for her. He had no idea why knowing she would be fine without him made him feel strangely deflated . . . the only reason he could think of was perhaps it reminded him of looking after a younger sister? There’d been a time when Gabi was in her mid-teens when she’d turned to him just the way Jemimah had on Sunday, and even though Gabi had found her feet many years ago, the closeness between them remained.

Deciding there was no point musing any further on his unaccountable mood, Michael forced his attention to the work which lay ahead of him. Many more hours of driving remained and he knew he could use them far more productively praying for every member of his congregation and each one of his students, than by dwelling on what lay behind him . . .

“Thanks very much,” Jemimah took her change from the shopkeeper, and reached out for the blue plastic bag containing her bread and milk, “It’s been very nice talking to you Mrs Chester - I’m sure I’ll see you again soon.”

“Certainly, dear - and I was just thinking about -” the older lady began, but was distracted by another customer. She’d held Jemimah captive at the counter for over half an hour, and Jemimah quickly put her change into her purse and just was about to make her escape when the bell on the door jangled loudly as another customer entered.

“No - I can’t believe it’s Jemma Parker!” a male voice boomed behind her.

Jemimah spun around, her mouth dropping open as she stared at the solid form of the young man who filled the doorway.

© R. L. Brown 2006

Eos Development