Jacaranda Plains

Chapter Eleven

I dreamt last night I rode this race
That I today must ride,
And cantering down to take my place
I saw full many an old friend's face
Come stealing to my side.

From “Rio Grande's Last Race” ~ Banjo Patterson

“Matt Gordon!”

The moment his name left Jemimah’s lips she wondered how she had recognised him. In the four years since they had left high school, Matt had changed dramatically. In place of the pudgy teenage boy she remembered stood a solid young man with a self-assured presence and several extra centimetres of height. He wore modern suit trousers and a short-sleeved business shirt and tie, and his goatee beard and closely cropped dark hair made him look ten years older.

Matt grinned at Jemimah, amused by her reaction. They’d known each other since kindergarten, and Jemimah was amazed that someone could look so different and yet feel so wonderfully familiar.

“I can’t believe it, Jemma - you haven’t changed a bit! You still look about twelve!” He strode over and grabbed her shoulders in a spontaneous half-hug, “And you’re the last person on earth I’d have imagined meeting out here. What are you doing in the Plains?”

“I’m about to start teaching at the Primary School. I only arrived on Saturday,” she answered quietly, aware of the rapt attention of the storekeeper and her other customers. “Were you going to buy something, Matt?” she hinted as her cheeks began to burn.

“Oh, yes.” Matt looked up and noted their curiosity with a broad smile, “Just a paper, thanks!” He placed a couple of coins on the counter, grabbed a newspaper and then held the screen door open for Jemimah.

“Thanks, Matt,” she said as she followed him outside. “So, what are you doing out here? Don’t tell me you live in Jacaranda Plains, too?”

“No - I just stay overnight at the pub a couple of times a month. I’m actually the Clerk of the Court here for two days each fortnight.”

“That sounds very impressive! How did you manage that?”

“Well, there wasn’t a whole lot of competition. I mean, who’d be mad enough to come all the way out here for a job?” He winked and his laugh rumbled from deep within his chest. “I started in the Courts straight after high school, and found that if I kept applying for promotions that no-one else wanted, I’d eventually get lucky. I’m still relatively junior - but this is such a small Court that they don’t need anyone more qualified. For the rest of the month I’m only a lowly clerk travelling between a few other Courthouses in the region. How about you? I thought teachers could end up on waiting lists years long before they got a permanent school.”

“Yes - sometimes they do, but I was one of ten in my graduation year who were given immediate placements. This was honestly the last place on earth I expected to be this year - but there is a really good church here, so I’m sure that this job is God’s special providence for me.”

“So you’re still as much of a religious fanatic as you were at school, then? Thought it might have worn off by now.”

“No,” Jemimah replied, and tried to keep her relaxed smile in place as her heart beat harder. Matt had always enjoyed ribbing Jemimah’s “blind faith” in the Bible, but his good natured attacks against her beliefs had been so persistent that she’d often wondered if there might be a deeper searching for truth behind his teasing. “In fact the more I learn about God the more convinced I am, Matt.”

“Y’know, I’m really glad that you’re still the same, Jemma. Everyone else seems to have changed so much since school. Do you still keep up with many people from our year?”

“Quite a few of us went to Newcastle Uni - so we ran into each other all the time. Though I’m not sure if we will now we’ve finished studying.” Jemimah glanced over her shoulder and noticed that the shopkeeper was now watching them from the doorway. Heat began to rise up her neck, but she tried to ignore it.

“I know what you mean - I lost contact with a lot of our friends once I started working. Look - I’d really love to catch up with you, Jemma. I was just about to get some dinner at the pub - why don’t you join me?”

He noted her hesitation, and continued. “I guess you wouldn’t be particularly comfortable with pubs, would you? But there’s literally nowhere else in town to get a meal after lunch time. The hotel dining room is separate from the bar - it’s just like a restaurant. Oh, I didn’t even think - ” he looked at her with a different expression, “I’m assuming that you’re on your own here?”

“Yes - I am but ... ” Jemimah was suddenly unsure of where Matt was heading.

“Hang on, I think you’re taking me the wrong way. I’m not asking you out to dinner or anything - I’ve got a girlfriend in Moree. I only had in mind finding somewhere a little more convenient to talk - I’m just aware you’re looking a little awkward catching up on our life histories out here on the footpath.”

“Yes, I suppose I am.” Jemimah took a deep breath, trying to think quickly. In any other circumstances she wouldn’t go out to dinner with a young man who wasn’t a Christian - but this was just Matt. She’d had lunch with him hundreds of times over the years - surely there was nothing wrong with catching up over dinner now? Matt had made it clear that he wasn’t asking her out, and perhaps God was giving her a second chance to share the gospel with him.

The thought of going into a pub for the first time was harder to reconcile herself with, but Jemimah couldn’t think of any alternative. Inviting Matt back to her place wasn’t an option - when she’d left home her father had made sure she agreed to a cast-iron policy never to have any man, regardless of who he was, visit in her flat when she was alone. It was either the pub, or she wouldn’t be able to spend any time with her old friend.

“I see you still have the bad habit of rushing into decisions,” Matt’s teasing broke into her thoughts.

“I know,” Jemimah gave him an apologetic smile, her awareness of the shopkeeper’s interest adding more pressure than Matt’s friendly prodding. “I’d like to catch up with you over tea, but I need to take this milk home first and put it in the fridge. I live just a couple of blocks away, would you mind if we walk there first?”

“Not at all - it’ll do me good to have a bit of exercise - it’s been a hectic day at work. You know, Jemma, it’s really nice to have a chance to unwind with a friend.” He grinned at her and began to tell her some of the interesting things that had happened through the day.

They were still chatting comfortably when Matt walked Jemimah back home after dinner. Her meal had been surprisingly nice, and although she could hear the noise of people drinking in the bar through the connecting archway, the room where they ate hadn’t been very different from a restaurant. The presence of a few other couples and one family had helped put her at ease, and after a little while Jemimah was able to forget her surroundings and just enjoy Matt’s convivial company.

“Thank you, Matt,” Jemimah said as she unlocked her door, “I’m very glad we ran into each other tonight - it’s been lovely catching up with you.”

“Yes, it was great.” Matt stepped back down from the door, “I hope we can do it again when I’m back in a fortnight. See you then, and good luck with your new boss. Hope you don’t find her too much of a dragon.” He turned and went down the path with a cheery wave.

Jemimah watched him go and then closed the door. As enjoyable as the evening had been, she couldn’t shake off the feeling of failure. Matt had been as oblivious to his need for God as he’d ever been, and when she’d tried to tell him how much better his life would be if he was a Christian he’d merely laughed and told her he was more than happy enough with his life. He couldn’t see how adding the hassles and inconsistencies of religion could possibly be an improvement.

She could see why he’d think that too, Jemimah admitted as she got ready for bed. From Matt’s point of view his life was perfect - his career in the courts was going better than he’d hoped and he felt proud of how much money he was making, he was studying law by correspondence and felt confident of future. From the sound of it he had a full social life, as well as being a popular member in the local cricket and soccer teams in Moree.

At least if Matt wanted to see her again next time he was in town, she’d have another chance to talk to him about Jesus. Maybe next time she could do a better job - she knew what a good thing it was to be a Christian, but obviously wasn’t much good at explaining it.

Jemimah turned off the light and slipped into bed. Although the air was cooler outside the house, her bedroom was still hot - and she wished again that she was brave enough to sleep with her bedroom window open. It was harder to get off to sleep in the stifling air, but at least she felt safe.

As she lay awake, listening to the arguments and clatter from the adjoining flats, Jemimah’s thoughts wandered to Matt’s comments about the school principal. He only knew Linda Armstrong by sight, but he’d come to know last year’s teacher fairly well, and that girl’s report hadn’t been very encouraging. From what she’d said, the principal was a control freak who liked everything done her way - and checked constantly to see if she could find any breech of her impossibly high standards.

Jemimah let out her breath slowly. When she’d been appointed to the position she’d arranged to start the following Monday - but now she didn’t think she could stand the suspense that long. She knew the principal would already be working at the school this week, organising the enrolment and other clerical tasks for the coming year and Jemimah decided to phone her in the morning and arrange to meet her as soon as possible. If her standards were as exacting as Matt had reported, the longer she had to prepare herself for the first day of school, the better.

She was slipping into an uneasy sleep when a door slammed in the flat next door and jolted her awake. In the thick darkness, with her heart pounding in reaction to the sudden noise, Jemimah’s worries seemed even larger. It seemed that as soon as she got over one hurdle, even more appeared.

Just as the tears started to well in her eyes, Jemimah thought of Michael Turnbull and the way he’d made everything seem manageable. She felt warm through as she remembered the understanding in his brown eyes and the rich bass of his voice when he’d told her to keep looking to God as her strength. More than ever, Jemimah wished Michael hadn’t left Jacaranda Plains - but when she saw him again she wanted to be able to tell him that she had relied on God and found him faithful.

Jemimah turned her beside lamp back on and reached for her Bible. Since she couldn’t sleep she would listen to God instead of her own fears, and then turn over to him her fears of failure in her new job, and her shortcomings in witnessing to Matt.

Jemimah stood outside the school gates at ten o’clock the following morning. She’d woken early, with the settled conviction she should meet with the school principal sooner rather than later. She filled the nervous hours before making the phone call just after nine by baking a chocolate slice to take with her, hopeful it might break the ice.

The finished slice now lay on china plate, carefully arranged beneath a film of cling-wrap in the top of her wide cane basket. Jemimah set the basket down on the footpath while she wiped the dust from her leather shoes and smoothed out her skirt. Linda Armstrong had answered the phone on the second ring, her gruff answer terrifying Jemimah. Her tone softened, however, as soon as Jemimah introduced herself and even became quite enthusiastic as she told Jemimah to come over to the school around ten.

Jemimah settled the basket back into the crook of her arm and made her way into the school yard. A shade-sail stretched across a portion of the playground, and a brightly coloured climbing gym occupied a far corner - but apart from those modern touches the school was wonderfully similar to the one Jemimah attended as a small child. The three weatherboard classrooms were painted the same pale butter colour as hundreds of other public schools throughout the state, their glossy white wooden windows making a cheerful contrast.

Hopscotch grids and other games were painted across the surface of the concrete quadrangle, and one wall of a brick toilet block was marked out with targets for ball games. The shadows of tall gum trees played across the dark green wooden benches that lined the playground, and currawongs chortled from their high branches as Jemimah walked beneath them to the largest classroom.

A woman came down the steps to meet her, and the welcoming smile on her face immediately eased a good proportion of Jemimah’s tension. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, a plump woman with fine reddish hair that nestled in limp curls against her round face. Her pink skin was blotched with the heat, and the hand she held out to Jemimah was clammy with sweat.

“Welcome, Jemimah - I’m Linda Armstrong. It’s good of you to come straight over, can’t get started too early. Come in, it’s a little cooler inside.”

Jemimah followed her up the steps onto an open verandah that ran the length of the small building, her high heels tapping as she crossed the wooden boards. Above a long bench were a line of bare peg-hooks, and Jemimah smiled as she imagined the little school bags that would hang from them next week. Long forgotten memories stirred as she stepped through the doorway and breathed in the scent of clag glue, acrylic paints and government floor cleaner and for a moment her fears about teaching slipped away.

Two doors led off the tiny anteroom; one into a classroom and the other into what Jemimah guessed to be the staff room. A laptop and several folders were spread across the central table, a coffee cup sitting beside them. The principal led her inside, and waved her to a chair.

“My office is in there,” she indicated one of two doorways on the other wall, “but I’ve been taking advantage of the big table while I’ve been here alone. I’ve just boiled the kettle. Tea or coffee?” She picked up a cup from the cupboard below the sink and turned to Jemimah.

“Oh, no thank you. May I just have a glass of water please?”

Linda Armstrong stared at her blankly for a moment, then said, “I haven’t got any in the fridge - and it’ll be straight from the tank in the tap. It’s probably a bit warm.”

Jemimah remembered Michael’s comment that people in the country wouldn’t know what to do with her if she didn’t drink tea or coffee - and felt herself begin to blush. “That’s fine thank you. It’s …. it’s okay to drink, isn’t it?”

“Sure. The children all drink it.” She filled the cup and handed it unceremoniously to Jemimah and made herself a coffee. As she returned to the table, Jemimah lifted out the plate of chocolate slice and put it between them.

“I … I brought something for morning tea,” she said awkwardly. Perhaps it was a silly thing to have done.

“How lovely!” The other woman’s face quickly dispelled her qualms, “I can see we’re going to get along just fine.” She took a slice and looked at Jemimah critically, “It matters, you know, when it is only the two of us. I can’t pretend I’m sorry that last year’s teacher left. Everything was a battle - and there’s no need for that. I tried to make it as easy for her as I could, but no - ” she shook her head, “it all had to be her way.”

The woman grabbed one of the folders from beside the laptop and slid it across to Jemimah. “I’ve been updating the infants’ program with the latest outcomes - I think it is all very well covered anyway. I know coming straight from uni you’ve probably got huge ideas of your own but I’d prefer it for at least the first couple of years if you’d follow my programme until you’ve had some more experience.”

Jemimah opened the folder, almost giddy with relief as she saw page after page of unit studies broken down into individual lesson plans complete with worksheets. From her sister and other teachers she’d heard the horror stories of staying up late night after night to prepare programs from scratch to meet the exacting demands of their head teachers. Jemimah was a painstakingly slow worker and the huge amount of preparation involved for new teachers had been one of her greatest worries.

“You might think it encroaches on your independence, and it was a big problem to the girl last year - but it’s a bit of a juggling act teaching three or four grades at once - and I know my programme works,” Linda Armstrong explained a little gruffly. “It makes it a lot easier for me to supervise - and to deal with the children when they come up into my class if they’ve been taught what they need to know. I’d rather you tell me now if this is going to be a problem to you.”

“Oh, no - it looks wonderful. Thank you so much.” Jemimah exclaimed, her relief overcoming her natural reticence. “May I please take it home to go through?”

“Of course.” Linda Armstrong beamed across the table at her, and began discussing the teaching programme in detail. Jemimah thought it strange at first that her new boss hadn’t bothered with any social chit chat before diving into the work, but she soon realised that the woman’s focus was entirely on the school. It was her kingdom, and her deep satisfaction appeared to be in making sure everything ran to her high standards. It seemed that so long as Jemimah was willing to do things her way, there would be no conflict between them, and nothing suited Jemimah better. With a heart full of thankfulness to God, she sat back and gave Linda Armstrong her full attention.

“One other thing I need to sort out with you,” the principal said as she helped Jemimah pile a number of folders into her basket a couple of hours later. “As far as sport goes , that’s something I’m going to ask you to take care of for both our classes. Of course, I’ll oversee the program but I need you to do all the hands-on teaching with that. You can see from my figure that I’m not the athletic type, but I’ve got a back injury from a car accident years ago that rules me out of anything active.”

Jemimah had never been at all adept at sports, but she imagined she should be able to manage supervising the kind of games she had assisted with during her prac teaching.

“That should be fine. Is it just the normal sports and games that focus on ball skills and basic athletics?”

“Yes, but the major sport the school is renowned for is the cross-country, because it’s accessible to almost all the kids whatever their background, and it’s certainly easy for us to organise. I can walk through the course at the rear and keep an eye on the smaller children, but in the past the other teacher has run it through at the front with the older kids - so the children are always between the two of us. Will you be right to do that?”

“Oh.” Jemimah looked at her blankly. “I don’t know. I’m puffed out running just a few metres.”

“Is there some medical problem?”

She shook her head. “No - I guess I’m just unfit. I’ve never been a sporty person and don’t have a lot of stamina. ” She felt the blush beginning to rise up her neck and looked down at her hands. “But I can try. Maybe if I do a little bit each day after school and work up to it …”

“Of course you can - and we’ll walk it through all together the first few times so that you know the route anyway. After that you can let me know when you are ready to run it.” The principal’s brisk tone made Jemimah’s hesitation seem trivial. “It shouldn’t take too long to build up your speed. It’s only a few years since you finished high school - what sports did you do then?”

“I think they gave up on the people like me,” Jemimah admitted with a small laugh, “Ballroom dancing was offered as an alternative to sport, so that was all I did for five years.”

“From what I’ve seen on TV I imagine that would have taken a fair amount of effort too,” Linda Armstrong said encouragingly, “Did you enjoy it?”

“Oh, very much,” Jemimah looked up, grateful her boss didn’t seem to be annoyed by her shortcomings, “We ended up doing well at it too - and actually made it to the finals in a few competitions. It’s funny,” she added feeling suddenly comfortable with her new colleague, “but I had the one dance partner the whole time, a boy called Matt Gordon. We haven’t seen each other since the end of Year Twelve - and yesterday afternoon I ran into him here at the local shop.”

“Matt Gordon, I’ve heard that name. He works at the Court, doesn’t he?”

“Yes - he’s based in Moree, but he travels out here two days a fortnight.” Jemimah looped her arm through the basket handle, and stepped back from the table. “Thank you so much for every thing, Ms Armstrong, I’ve taken up hours of your time and should let you get back to your work now.”

“You’re welcome - and just call me Linda,” the other woman told her as she stood up. “I want you to feel you can come to me about anything - with only the two of us we’ll be a pretty close team.” She paused and then added, “Only the two of us on staff anyway. One of the mums helps out with some of the clerical work, although you won’t meet her until school starts. Her son Bailey, has special needs, so she stays here to be on hand. He’s in your class, and Marlene manages things very smoothly for him, but of course I’ll help you with any concerns you might have with that.”

“I’m sure everything will be fine - I met Marlene Hart and her children on Sunday.
They invited me back for lunch after church so I was able to spend a few hours with them. They are lovely children.”

“But I thought you’d only just arrived.”

“Yes, I only arrived on Saturday but my pastor had contacted the church here and told them to expect me,” she explained. For the first time Linda seemed a little discomposed, and it crossed Jemimah’s mind that her boss might have preferred her new teacher not to have any other connections in the town.

“Don’t get too committed with the different folk here until you’ve given yourself time to settle in,” Linda advised as she followed her to the door. “Tomorrow I’ve got an appointment in the morning so I won’t be in until after eleven - so you can come over after that and start getting your classroom organised.”

Jemimah thanked her and said goodbye, and smiled to herself as she crossed the playground. It looked like her holidays were over.

She turned to latch the school yard gate behind her when the blast of a horn almost beside her made her jump and nearly lose her grip on the basket. She righted it just as the contents began to slide out then turned to see a shiny red ute pulled up beside her.

“School in already, Miss Parker?” Jack Hart drawled from the open window, the grin on his face even more condescending than his tone, “Hop in and I’ll drop you home.”

Jemimah’s breath rushed out of her, but she made a concerted effort not to look flustered, and switched the heavy basket to her other hand. “Hello, Jack - thanks for the offer but I’m only around the corner. I’ll be fine walking.”

“Your skinny little arms will be dropping off by the time you carry that load home. Stick it in the back and hop in.”

He had a point, and apart from the fact her hand was already burning under the heavy weight, something told her it would be useless to argue with him. Jack waited in the driver’s seat while she struggled to lift the basket into the tray at the back of the ute.

“So the headmistress hasn’t eaten you up yet?” he asked, driving off from the kerb when Jemimah had barely shut the door. “Or did you leave a trail of crumbs to find your way back home?”

“Ms Armstrong seems very kind. You make it sound like she’s the witch in Hansel and Gretel.”

Jack chuckled. “She’s just fattening you up first. Look at all the paperwork she’s loaded you up with. Meanwhile she’s heating up the oven.”

Even though Jemimah was sure he was only teasing, after hearing Matt’s opinion of the principal, Jack’s comments sent a shiver down her spine. She glanced across nervously to see his expression, but he saw her and raised one eyebrow.

“We’ve only got the principal’s word that last year’s teacher actually left … did anybody see her say goodbye or did she just disappear?”

“Oh, stop it - Jack! Now I know you’re joking. Linda Armstrong is a very nice lady, and she’s been very helpful to me. Besides,” Jemimah said, a reassuring thought coming to mind, “Marlene knows her well - she would have warned me if there was any hint of trouble about her.”

“Forgot about that,” Jack shrugged, giving up on that game and switching smoothly to the next. “Are you all set for Friday night? Got big plans for it - might make it into a Welcome to Jemimah Parker Party. I’ve lined up a microphone and amplifier, so you better get a good speech ready.”

Jemimah shot him a look of abject horror before she saw the laughter in his eyes and sank back against her seat. Angie had said he liked to tease, so she would just have to learn to let it flow over her. It was Marlene and the Andersons that organised the social nights - surely they wouldn’t let Jack organise something like that to embarrass her.

“Thank you for the lift, Jack,” she said sweetly, relieved when he stopped outside her flat. “You are very kind.”

She hopped down from her seat and quickly retrieved her basket from the tray. He was still laughing when she passed the open window on her way to the path.

“And you’re very welcome, Miss Parker. I’m really looking forward to Friday night - I can promise you’ll make a big splash.”

© R. L. Brown 2006

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