Jacaranda Plains

Chapter 22

And some face it boldly, and brazen
The shame and the utter disgrace;
While others, more sensitive, hasten
Their names and their deeds to efface.

From “Gentleman One” ~ Banjo Patterson

When Jemimah saw Matthew striding up the path to her flat the following Tuesday night, she cast one more glance over the table before walking to the front door. She’d rushed straight home after school and taken extra trouble over all her arrangements - carefully folding her most special linen napkins beside each of the three dinner plates, and placing a vase filled with bright red bottlebrush in the centre of the table.

The delicious aroma of roast meat and baked vegetables filled the flat, and Jemimah hoped the effort she’d gone to would soothe over any awkwardness about the change of plans. Despite feeling that having Angie join her and Matt for tea was the perfect solution, and one Matt should have no reason to object to, Jemimah had been growing steadily more nervous as the afternoon wore on.

There was a knock on the front door, and Jemimah wiped her clammy palms on her skirt. Everything will be fine, she reassured herself as she turned the handle, I just need to carry on like normal.

“Hi Matt - how are you going? Did you have a better day at work than last time you were here?”

“Much better, I was quite busy all day. It was a real relief.” Matthew looked up, noticing that Jemimah had made no move to lock up the door and join him as usual. “You’re still coming for dinner at the pub with me tonight, aren’t you?”

“Actually, I’ve cooked dinner here for us. I’ve …. I’ve invited another friend of mine, too - Angie Turnbull - to join us. The Bible study I go to is at her house, so we’ll go there together afterwards.” Jemimah’s heart was pounding painfully. It felt so much harder to explain than she’d expected. “You know Angie, don’t you?”

“Yes. She works for the Brother’s Grim. She’s the younger one, isn’t she?”

“Yes - she’s the same age as us.” Jemimah opened the door wider, but Matt made no move to enter.

“She’s joining us just for tonight, is she?”

Jemimah swallowed and tried to smile. “No. I was actually planning to do this every Tuesday night. I …. I didn’t think that you’d mind.”

“Well I do mind!” He gave a harsh laugh. “Don’t you want to have dinner out with me anymore?”

“I’m sorry, Matt, but I’m just not comfortable about having dinner alone with you like we have been.”

“You were fine with it every other time I’ve been here - what have I done to suddenly make you uncomfortable with me?”

It was not asked gently, and Jemimah’s heart sunk as she realised she had no option but to see it through now.

“You haven’t done anything to make me uncomfortable, Matt - I just hadn’t thought through the implications of what I was doing. It turns out that just about the whole town assumes that we are going out together.”

“And that is such a problem to you?”

Jemimah nodded wretchedly, wondering how she would ever get through the conversation. “Yes, it is. You know how much I’m committed to obeying God, well, because the Bible teaches that I can’t marry a person who isn’t a Christian I would never even date someone who wasn’t. I hadn’t thought of our dinners in that kind of light - but now I can see that by all appearances they are.”

“Because other people have told you that? And what other people think matters more than our friendship?”

“No - it’s not because of what other people think,” she shook her head, feeling increasingly miserable. “Well - yes, it does matter to me if I give people the impression that I don’t really care about obeying God but that’s not the whole reason why I don’t want to have dinner on our own together. It’s because it would be like a date, and that’s not something I feel right about. It isn’t you - it just isn’t what I should do as a Christian”.

“That’s nice and convenient for you, isn’t it Jemma? You’re not interested in seeing me anymore, but you haven’t got the decency to come straight out and say it - so you just say it’s because you’re a Christian. Do you know what kind of an insult that is?”

Jemimah could hardly swallow for the huge lump in her throat. She’d never seen Matt angry like this before.

“No, you’ve got it all wrong. I do want to continue being friends with you, Matthew - that’s why I’ve asked you here for dinner instead.”

“Yes, but with Angie Turnbull as well,” he snorted. “It’s a real co-incidence that it’s the minister’s daughter who you’ve invited along, isn’t it? And you expect me to believe that your minister hasn’t spoken to you about me?”

“Pastor Turnbull did speak to me about it - but only because I went to him for advice. He did agree that it wasn’t really appropriate for me to see you alone the way I have been, because it is just like a date, but that there was nothing wrong with spending time with you along with other people.”

“So that’s why it’s been arranged for the minister’s daughter to chaperone us! Unbelievable.” Matt crossed his arms across his chest and shook his head at her. “Can’t you even think for yourself anymore?”

“Matt, no-one is making me do this. I asked Angie to come along because it’s important to me that I don’t give anyone the wrong idea about us. You see, it’s not just what people think about me, that wouldn’t matter so much, but because I’m a Christian and what I do reflects on God and the rest of his followers.”

“If you want to give Christians the reputation of being narrow and judgemental you’re doing a great job,” he told her, eyes flashing. “You were all right, you know, before you came here and joined this church. Now, after nearly twenty years of being friends, suddenly I’m not good enough anymore.”

Tears stung Jemimah’s eyes, as she tried desperately to explain, “No, Matt, that’s not true …. you don’t understand -”

“I understand all right. Well, Jemimah, I can promise you won’t have to worry about what anyone is saying about us anymore. I’ll have tea alone, thanks!”

Matthew turned on his heel and strode down the street.

Jemimah was still standing in the doorway, motionless from the shock of the exchange when Angie came up the steps only a couple of minutes later.

“I don’t have to ask how that went,” Angie said as she walked through the open door. “I passed Matt at the corner with a face like thunder. Guess he wasn’t too impressed by the new plan.”

Jemimah shut the door and burst into tears. “It was awful, Angie. I never imagined …. he could be so angry and …. hard …. with me. He thinks …. Oh, I think he hates me now.”

Angie regarded her with awe. “Wow. I never could have imagined you offending anyone. What did you say to him?”

“Only what we talked about with your Dad,” Jemimah dabbed her eyes with a tissue and blew her nose, then sat down on the couch and recounted the whole conversation to Angie. “It’s just that he twisted everything I tried to explain to him. It really couldn’t have gone any worse.”

“So, one person is offended at you - it’s not the end of the world, you know.”

Jemimah wiped at her eyes again. “It feels like it. It’s not just Matt either. I ruined things with Linda Armstrong, too. She’s still polite and everything, but it’s not the same as it was. I wish none of this had ever happened.”

“What? You wish you had just kept going out to tea with Matt like you’d originally planned?”

“No, of course not. I really see now that wasn’t wise.”

“You just wished you could have done what would be honouring to God without offending anyone?” Angie shrugged. “That we could all be so lucky! Unfortunately it doesn’t always work that way. Anyway, you’re not going to let this delicious roast dinner go to waste just because Matt didn’t know what he was passing up, are you?”

Jemimah winced. “I’m sorry, Angie - you go ahead - but I don’t think I could eat a bite. I just want to go to bed.” She remembered Bible study, and closed her eyes. “Angie, can we just stay here tonight? I just don’t think I could face being with people right now.”

“No.” Angie shook her head. “You’re not wimping out on me. You’ll only sit at home and brood.” She grabbed Jemimah’s hands and dragged her to her feet. “And you’re going to have something to eat, too. Look at it this way, you’ve been stressing about it all for nearly two weeks, and it’s all over - you can relax now. It can only get better from here.”

Jemimah reluctantly followed her into the kitchen, even though the sight of her specially laid table made her feel a fresh wave of misery. “Do you really think so?”

“Yeah, I’m sure of it.”

It seemed that Angie was right about getting out of the flat, thought Jemimah, as she followed her friend back into the Turnbull’s lounge room later that evening. Being out amongst church people and stopping to focus on God’s Word had really put things back into perspective.

She placed her tray of cup-cakes onto the coffee table and took her mug of tea back to her chair in the corner of the lounge room. One consolation was that Jack Hart hadn’t arrived until halfway through the Bible study, and Mr Higgins had kept him talking all through supper. Jemimah honestly didn’t think she could have handled any of his ribbing that night.

When everyone had had opportunity to get their drinks and select something to eat, Pastor Turnbull began the informal sharing time. After mentioning a couple of matters for prayer, he gave the usual invitation for others to share.

Jemimah had just taken a sip of her tea when Jack’s voice boomed out, “I think young Jemimah Parker has broken some kind of record. She’s been here, what, just over a month, and already she’s ruined the reputation of the church!”
Jemimah almost choked on her mouthful of tea as Jack paused and looked around the room, grinning at the effect of his dramatic statement.

“Apparently Matthew Gordon from the Courthouse is telling everyone in town that our church is some kind of fanatical cult,” Jack continued his tale. “It seems that he’s been friends with our Jemimah here since they started school, but now she’s joined this church she’s not even allowed to talk to him. And this fanatical pastor of hers has brainwashed her into unquestioning obedience so that she isn’t even able to think for herself.”

Jemimah was so stunned that she couldn’t even look up, but stared at the surface of the tea in her cup as it rippled in her trembling hand.

“So this young bloke Matt, who she’s given the flick, is sitting at the main bar in town, flaming angry and telling every one who’ll listen, about what the church here is really like. I had to pick up one of our farm workers in town - that’s why I was late tonight - and he’d stopped in for a cold one while he waited. I only caught a bit of the tirade when I went in to get him - but he filled me in on the rest on the way home.”

“Now, Jack - have you forgotten everything I’ve been trying to tell you all about not using this time to indulge in gossip?” Pastor Turnbull pulled him up.

A bashful grin played across Jack’s lips, but before he could answer, a farm hand Jemimah barely knew leaned forward.

“Oh, it’s not just gossip,” he said quietly, as though uncomfortable in the limelight, “My brother came home just as I was leaving and started asking me about this strange church I belong to. He was saying the same stuff Jack was just saying - and wanted to know if it was true. I told him he was out of his tree - and that I didn’t know what he talking about. Oh well, you live ‘n’ learn.”

A couple of other people added comments and Jemimah’s face burned as she felt everyone’s eyes on her. Her chest was so tight she could barely breathe. Although there had been no trace of malice in Jack’s voice, just hearing him and the others talking about the dreadful things Matt had said about her and the church made her want to curl up and die. She knew Matt had been offended by what she’d said - but he must have been incensed with her to talk like this ....

Jemimah’s eyes stung, but she was desperate not to cry, not here in front of everyone.

Finally Pastor Turnbull spoke, “I think we get the general picture, thank you. I don’t think Jemimah will mind if I fill you in on the background ....” he paused, and without looking up, Jemimah nodded in agreement.

“Matthew Gordon is an old schoolmate of Jemimah’s - and they met up for dinner a couple of times when he was in town with the Court and he seemed keen to keep in contact with her. He makes no claim of Christianity, and Jemimah came and asked for advice about whether it was appropriate to see him as a friend, as it’s been giving her a good opportunity to witness to him. We both felt it would be best if she told him she wouldn’t see him on her own, but would be happy to see him with other people. She had been planning to speak to the young man this afternoon, and explain why she wasn’t able to continue seeing him on her own - but it would seem that her request to include Angie in their party didn’t go down well.”

“Not at all,” Angie chimed in from the other side of the room, “and I’m trying not to take it personally. I’m not that bad a dinner companion.”

A round of laughter eased the tension in the room, but Jemimah sat like stone, staring down at the floor and hoping no-one else could see the tiny spot on the carpet where one errant tear had escaped her eye. She knew Angie was just trying to take the focus off her, but there wasn’t anything at all funny about the situation.

“Of course it’s not pleasant for any of us when something like this happens, but it’s a part of being salt and light in the world. There are occasions when trying to lead holy lives by following God’s commands means we have to make unpopular choices. Sometimes God uses our example to bring others to seek his mercy to make them right with him, but other times it just offends them and makes them angry and resentful.” Pastor Turnbull continued, his deep voice seeming to come to Jemimah from some place far away.

“What’s important is that we continue to act according to what the Bible teaches, no matter what the repercussions are. And it’s important that we support each other when things like this happen. Yes - the church does come under attack, but Jemimah certainly hasn’t caused it, it’s just an indication that we are doing our job. If no-one was ever offended I’d be concerned that as Christians we were no different to the rest of the world.”

“I’d reckon Matt’s male ego has been offended more than anything else,” Jack remarked. “From a reaction like that it seems pretty obvious to me that there was more than merely friendly interest from his side.”

“In any case, I think that’s as far as we should take things here,” Pastor Turnbull answered firmly, “Are there any other matters to share?”

Jemimah endured a few long minutes of silence, not daring to move her eyes from the cup in her hand, until a couple of other people brought up matters for prayer. The moment the meeting had been concluded in prayer, Jemimah escaped from the room, carefully avoiding everyone’s eyes on her way to the hall. As she fumbled with the door handle, she heard Pastor Turnbull’s voice in the lounge room.

“Now Jack, do you really think that was the wisest thing to do, springing Matthew’s reaction on Jemimah, here in front of everyone?”

“I figure she’s better hearing it here amongst the church family, than when she’s on her own in town tomorrow,” he replied unapologetically. Another man made a comment, but Jemimah was through the door now and couldn’t make out what was said.

It was only as she unlocked her car that she noticed the mug of tea still in her hand. She hesitated only a moment before emptying it onto the nearest rose bed, then carried it with her into the car. She’d have to sneak it into the kitchen on her next visit.

There was nothing in the world that would induce her to go back inside now.

Jemimah had passed a wretched night, and as she walked into school the next morning, she knew that even her makeup did little to hide the dark circles under her eyes. Her classroom door was already open, and she nearly cried when she saw Marlene arranging a huge bunch of roses in a vase on her desk.

“I heard you had a pretty rough day yesterday,” Marlene said, wrapping Jemimah in a huge hug. “I tried to ring you last night, when I thought you’d be home from Bible study, but your phone was engaged.”

“Thank you,” Jemimah said, blinking away the tears that came too readily to her eyes. “Pastor Turnbull rang me almost as soon as I got home and talked to me for a while. He’s a very kind man.”

She leant forward to breathe in the roses’ fragrance, and then looked up at Marlene. “If you know about it, I guess Jack’s been talking?”

Marlene sighed. “That man is a trouble maker, isn’t he? Yes, he did tell me about Matt Gordon before he left for the Bible study - but I only put so much weight on what Jack says - so I rang Karen afterwards and she told me what her husband said had gone on at the meeting. I’m sorry, sweetie, it didn’t turn out well for you, did it?”

Jemimah shrugged. “I think the worst part is knowing Matt is so angry with me. That’s what really upset me - even if he was hurt by what I said - I’d have thought our friendship would have counted for something.” She began opening the classroom windows, determined not allow her misery to gain mastery over her. “Colin told me last night that the social night is cancelled this Friday night?”

“Yes, the high school is holding a fundraising film night, so we thought it best not to compete. It will be strange having a quiet night on my own. The kids don’t want to miss out on their sleep-over at Ma and Pa’s.”

“Why don’t you come and have tea with me?” Jemimah suggested. While she was glad not to have to face anyone else on Friday, since her run-in with Matt she was more nervous than ever about spending the long evenings alone in her flat. “Unless, of course, you’d prefer to actually have a quiet night on your own. I didn’t think of that - I shouldn’t have asked you.”

“Oh, no - I’d love to come. The place is just too quiet when the kids aren’t there, and it’s hard not to brood. I end up just doing the ironing or something, which isn’t really like a night off at all. A girl’s night on our own would be just great. What can I bring?”

“Nothing, thank you.” Jemimah shook her head, thinking grimly of the contents of her fridge. “You know, if you were coming tonight we could have feasted in style. I still have the best part of Matt’s roast leg of lamb haunting me in the fridge. It seems wrong to just throw it away, but …”

“No, don’t waste it. Stick it in the freezer, and we’ll enjoy it on Friday night. He’s a silly boy passing it up, but we’ll do justice to it. And I’ll bring dessert, okay?”

Jemimah thanked her, and went out into the playground to investigate the source of a squabble between two early pupils. She was grateful Marlene was coming over on Friday night. At least she had one thing to look forward to in what seemed to have become the worst week of her life.

© R. L. Brown 2007

Eos Development