Now look, you see, it's this way like,
You cross the broken bridge,
And run the crick down till you strike
The second right-hand ridge.
The track is hard to see in parts,
But still, it's pretty clear;
There's been two Injin hawkers' carts
Along that road this year.
From “The Road to Hogan's Gap” ~ Banjo Patterson
Once again, Jemimah found herself in the Hart’s grand bathroom, wrapped in a towel and waiting for a change of clothes. This time, however, she was not alone - but one of a handful of girls with bare feet and wet hair cloistered in the room. A few of the girls sat on the edge of the bath, and as Jemimah perched herself on the closed wooden toilet seat they briefly looked her way with casual interest before they returned to their conversation.
Although Jemimah didn’t join in their chatter, she felt a sense of acceptance that hadn’t been there prior to their dunking in the pool. The conversation turned to the local high school, and Jemimah was pleased to see Leanne interacting comfortably with the other girls.
“Who cares?” shrugged the girl called Jarrah, when one of her friends brought up what they’d heard about the teacher who would be their year mistress the coming year. “The day I turn fifteen, I’m quittin’.”
Her friend Tahlia grinned. “When’s that - June? You gonna skip the exams, then?”
When she nodded her two friends grimaced in envy, but Leanne asked, “Why wouldn’t you stay on a couple of months more and at least get your School Certificate?”
Jarrah shook her head. “Nuh. Waste of time - wouldn’t get it anyway. The teachers all hate me, no way they’re gonna give me good enough marks.”
Talia laughed. “You’re just saying that cause they put you on report last year. Shouldn’t argue with them so much, Jarrah.”
“They treat me like dirt - it’s their problem if they don’t like how I give it back to ‘em. Teachers are just there to bully kids cause they reckon we can’t fight back. They’re all -” Jarrah’s dark eyes flashed as she applied a few vulgar epithets to the whole cursed breed of educators.
Leanne blushed bright red, her eyes flicking nervously across to Jemimah.
“What?” Jarrah demanded as she noticed Leanne’s embarrassment. “That girl’s not a teacher or somethin’, is she?”
“Uh-huh,” Leanne nodded and Jarrah swore, much to the amusement of her girlfriends.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t mean you,” she waved her hand dismissively toward Jemimah, “just the ones at our school.” Then a new thought added a further discomfort to her expression and she swore again. “You’re not starting there this year, are you?”
“No, I’ll be teaching at the infant’s school,” Jemimah answered, her heart beating hard as she hoped to smooth over the tension that had arisen in the room. “This is my first year, so I’m more worried about school than you are. But it’s worse than I feared if that’s what people here think about teachers.”
Jarrah grinned at her comment. “Nah, it’s just me. Kids in the top classes like her,” she jerked her head at Leanne, “don’t have any problems with the teachers.”
“You said before that the teachers wouldn’t give you good enough marks for the School Certificate,” Jemimah began, and hoped no-one would hear the nervousness in her voice, “but if you did well enough in your exams they’d have to give it to you, whether they liked you or not. Wouldn’t you like to prove them wrong?”
“Yeah, right,” she snorted. “There’s no way I can do the assignments and other stuff they give us. It’s rubbish - the only ones who do good are the smart kids, or the ones whose parents do it for ‘em.”
Jemimah looked at her thoughtfully. She’d seen how easily Jarrah had picked up the instructions for the games that evening - and even the derogatory comments with which she’d entertained her girlfriends showed a quick mind. Perhaps this was the perfect opportunity for her to reach out Jarrah and her friends with the one thing she was good at - if only she had the courage to offer.
With her throat tight as she fought the urge to retreat into silence, Jemimah breathed a silent prayer and plunged ahead.
“I could help. I tutored a few kids from my church over the last few years, and they did well. You’re obviously a bright girl, Jarrah - maybe just having someone explain what the teacher wants and where to start might make a big difference to the marks you get.”
Jarrah ran her tongue across her top lip, then shook her head. “Nuh. Waste of time.”
Jemimah had read the interest that flickered briefly in the girl’s eyes before she resumed an expression of indifference, but knew there’d be nothing gained by pushing any further. She felt shaky all over from saying as much as she had, and shrugged before continuing in an offhand tone.
“You’d be welcome anyway. I’m going to stay back at school for a couple of hours each afternoon while I get my work ready for the next day. If any of you ever want help with your homework or assignments, just come by my classroom and ask. I’d enjoy keeping my hand in with high school work. Although,” she frowned for a moment before continuing, “it will have to be before four-thirty for the time being. I’ve somehow got to get fit enough to run the cross-country for school sport - so I’m planning to practice on the course each afternoon until I can manage it.”
“Jarrah here would be the one to tell you how to do that,” Kylie said, leaning forward to look at her, “she’s represented the school at cross country every single year.”
“’Cept last year ‘cause they wouldn’t let me go. The school lost the Cup, too. Serves ‘m right.”
Jemimah looked at the Jarrah’s sinewy frame with new respect. “Do you think I could do it?”
Jarrah flicked her hair out of her eyes. “The primary school course is easy, it’s only one’a’half kilometres. If the kids can do it, anyone should be able to. Though, some of the fifth and sixth class kids are pretty fast. We used to do two or three laps in the time the little ones took.”
“Miss Armstrong didn’t tell me that!” Jemimah slumped back against the cistern, her expression making the girls laugh, “I thought I only had to make it round once.”
For a moment she thought that Jarrah was about to offer some further advice about the cross-country, but the girl said nothing more, turning instead toward Talia and Kylie as they swapped tales about the shortcuts they’d found in the cross-country course when they’d been at the primary school. All the girls were laughing at the recount of their exploits when Mrs Hart returned with an assortment of nearly dry and substitute clothing.
“Yours said “Do Not Tumble Dry” so I put them out on the line”, Mrs Hart explained to Jemimah, as she handed her the same floral frock that she’d returned only hours earlier. Jemimah took it with a resigned smile, wondering if she’d ever leave the Hart’s home in her own clothing.
The younger girls were already wiggling into their underwear behind their towels, and Jemimah almost asked Mrs Hart if she could go and dress in another room. She changed her mind though, and said nothing as Mrs Hart left - the girls had begun to accept her amongst them, and it would be a backwards step to separate herself from them now.
She took a tight hold on her towel and stepped into the corner behind the toilet. It had been a while since she’d changed in communal dressing rooms after school sport, and she hoped she hadn’t forgotten the necessary contortions of doing it all underneath her towel.
When Jemimah emerged from the bathroom with the other girls, she noticed that the supper tables had judiciously been moved from the pool area to the front verandah. This put paid to the plans for revenge a couple of the girls had been plotting while they dressed, but it didn’t stop them uttering jovial threats to the boys. Although she’d never admit it to Jack, Jemimah felt the impromptu dunking was probably the best thing that could have happened.
Even the girls who’d come along for the first time seemed completely at ease now, and sounded keen to come along to the next get-together. Jemimah had no idea whether Jarrah or any of the others would take up her offer of help with their school work, but she was glad God had given her the courage to make it. At least they knew where to find her if they wanted to.
Jack was nowhere in sight when she and Angie stood chatting with Marlene for a quarter of an hour after the guests had all left. He appeared however, just as she and Angie were about to drive off, and leaned in the driver’s window to speak to Jemimah.
“Don’t forget this,” Jack dangled her watch in through the window.
“I guess I should thank you for taking it off before throwing me in the pool,” Jemimah said as she took the watch from him and clasped it around her wrist. “You must have guessed it wasn’t waterproof - so I’m grateful at least that it’s only my clothes and shoes that were wet through.”
“Yeah, well that’s why everyone says I’m all heart.” He winked at Jemimah as Angie groaned at his pun, then straightened up.
“Off you go then, and don’t forget to watch out for yowies.”
“Yowies?” Jemimah asked, prepared to expand her range of outback idioms.
“Surely you’ve heard of them? Those beasts that roam the Pilliga scrub - half man, half ape - you don’t often get a glimpse of them, but there’s the occasional footprint and the scarred trees about the place where they’ve sharpened their claws.”
“Goodnight, Jack!” Angie dismissed him with an arctic tone, and he stood back from the car.
“Just remember, Miss Parker - don’t ever get out of your car at night until you’re within sight of the town lights.”
Jemimah put her car into gear, and slowly crunched forward over the gravel. “Sure thing, Jack,” she called back, and turned her eyes to the dark country road ahead of her. There was no way she was going to take this latest prank seriously, but she couldn’t resist saying to Angie, “He made that all up about the yowie, didn’t he?”
“Haven’t you heard of yowies before? It’s the Australian version of Big Foot or the Yeti. Bit of a Pilliga tradition.”
But it’s all made up, isn’t it? Jemimah wanted to ask, but forced herself not to throw away any remaining dignity. She soon forgot the eerie feeling the mention of the yowie had given her as all her attention was consumed in negotiating the unfamiliar road. Her headlights lit only a tiny swathe through the bush, giving little notice of unexpected curves, and she longed to slow the car to a safe crawl.
Fear of annoying Angie forced her to keep her speed up to sixty kph,
but she couldn’t go any faster, even after Angie’s not-so-subtle hint that the speed limit was usually one hundred on the out-of-town roads unless signposted otherwise. With Michael driving her car home last Sunday night, Jemimah still hadn’t driven on the country roads after sundown, and her knuckles were white as she gripped the steering wheel.
When Jemimah finally turned onto the sealed road that led into town she thought the worst was over until she saw the two points of light approaching on the road in front . . . .
“They’re coming straight for us!” Sheer terror pushed past her fear of embarrassment, and she instinctively went for the brake.
“They’re ages away yet.” Angie’s hand pressed her own, keeping her from giving in to the impulse to pull straight off the road. “Don’t slow up - just steer straight ahead.”
The calmness in her friend’s voice helped a little, but Jemimah’s heart was pounding in her throat as she stared at the oncoming lights. The sense of being on a collision course increased, as the gap between the vehicles slowly closed.
“Am I far enough left?”
“Yes,” Angie reassured her, but Jemimah would have given anything to pull over.
“Are you sure? This road is so narrow!”
“And I’ve driven it hundreds of times. Any further left and you’ll hit the gravel on the side of the road.”
The lights were blazing in her eyes now, a row of small yellow lights along the top of the oncoming vehicle revealing it as a huge truck.
“But there’s no lines! How do I know I’m on my half?” Not only was Jemimah lost without the centre lines she was accustomed to, there were none of the kerbs and guttering of her home town - not even so much as a painted line to mark where the road ended and the treacherous gravel verge began. The sensation of loss of control and of skidding on gravel was still fresh in her mind, and she could taste blood as she bit down on her lip in desperate concentration.
She prayed for God’s mercy as the truck bore down on her, then the sudden rush of wind rocked her car as one, two, three trailers thundered past. Her whole body tingled with relief in the sudden silence after its passing.
“Guess I was far enough left after all,” Jemimah gave a slightly hysterical giggle and let the car glide to a stop. She sank back against her seat, sure she could never endure that suspense again.
“What are you doing?” Angie demanded, swivelling in her seat to face her. “Why are you stopping?”
“I can’t drive any more. My arms and legs are like jelly,” she said simply, the empty road ahead lit eerily in her headlights.
“What?” Angie’s voice betrayed her annoyance, but Jemimah could only shake her head.
“I’m sorry, Angie. Please will you drive?”
Angie had already flung out of the car when, with a sudden rush of goose bumps, Jemimah remembered what Jack had said about the yowie, and his warning not to get out of the car before reaching the town lights. No longer sure of what was worse - getting out of the car or continuing to drive - she climbed across the centre console to the passenger side. She felt stupid enough already before Angie rapped on the driver’s window to remind her that the driver’s door was still locked, and she had to clamber back across the seats to let her in.
As Angie pointedly slid back the driver’s seat before roaring off, Jemimah wished she could crawl under her own seat and never come back out. She’d been so pleased to have made a friend in Angie - and now she’d ruined everything with her stupid childishness. Angie would have to be thoroughly fed up with her, and keen to get back home as soon as possible.
A new fear gripped Jemimah’s heart. If Angie wanted to go straight home now, instead of staying the night, she’d have no option but driving all the way back into town in the dark. And she knew she simply couldn’t face that.
“You’re not crying are you?” Angie asked a moment later, as Jemimah sniffed into her hankie. “There’s no big deal. It’s just going to take some time for you to get used to driving around here. I was a bit annoyed you gave up so quickly - but that’s okay - you just need more practice. But if you can’t do any more tonight, you just can’t.”
“I’m sorry,” Jemimah mumbled, mortified by her weakness, but Angie told her not to make a fuss about it. “Besides,” Angie continued, “we’ll get a lot of practice tomorrow. I’ve been wanting to go up to Moree for ages - and you’ll pass heaps of semi-trailers on that route. You’ll be able to get the feel of it in the daylight, and then we could always go back to my place once it’s dark so you can have another go at night driving.”
Jemimah murmured her thanks, on the one hand relieved that Angie’s friendship seemed intact, but more than a little daunted about the plans in store for her tomorrow ….
© R. L. Brown 2007