Did midnight howls our slumber rob,
We said “It’s uncle on the job.”
When sounds of fight rang sharply out,
Then Bill was bound to be about.
From “Uncle Bill” ~ Banjo Patterson
“Anything I can do to help?” Marlene followed Jemimah into the kitchen a few minutes after arriving on Friday night.
“It’s all ready to serve, thanks. Would you like to pick a CD to play?”
Jemimah left Marlene exploring her small CD collection, while she placed a slice of roast vegetable frittata and a generous serving of beef and gravy onto each of their plates. It was good to use up the rest of Tuesday night’s ill-fated meal. It would have felt too wasteful throwing it all away - but its presence in the house was yet another gloomy reminder of everything that had gone wrong.
The last few days had been terribly hard. Jemimah’s feelings were still bruised from Matt’s reaction and its aftermath, casting a grey shadow over her every thought and action. The whole scenario replayed in her mind constantly and she was sure that every person she passed in town had heard the whole story, and thought the worst of her.
She just hoped she could cheer herself up enough to make it a pleasant evening for Marlene.
“I wouldn’t mind hearing this.” Marlene held up the movie soundtrack from The Princess Bride. “I can’t remember the music but I loved the movie.” She bent to put the disc in the small player, and the atmospheric score gently welled up from it.
Jemimah had just returned to the table with a bottle of fruit juice in one hand and two long stemmed glasses in the other when a startling blast of heavy metal music made her jump involuntarily. One of the glasses skipped out from her grasp, snapping neatly at the stem as it hit the table.
Almost in panic, Marlene stabbed at the off switch of the CD player, but even when she’d pulled the plug from the wall the music continued to blare.
“No - it’s next door,” Jemimah explained, holding one hand to her racing heart. Just when it seemed impossible to bear the onslaught of the music any longer, the volume abruptly decreased. It was still loud enough to vibrate through the floorboards, but Jemimah could at least speak over it now.
She managed a forced smile as she gathered up the pieces of broken glass. “I guess we won’t need to trouble with our own music, after all. Nothing like listening to a different style for a change, is there?”
“Oh, Jemimah!” Marlene took the broken glass from Jemimah’s hand, and shook her head apologetically. The pity in her eyes made it clear that Jemimah hadn’t made a very convincing job of her brave front. “What a shame on top of everything else … You’re still a bundle of nerves over everything that’s happened, aren’t you? You really shouldn’t have gone to the trouble of having me for a meal.”
Jemimah pulled out an old newspaper from under the sink, and held it out for Marlene to put the glass in. “Inviting you over was for entirely selfish motives, I assure you. The nights have been too long this week, so I’m very glad you agreed to come.” She placed the wrapped pieces into the bin, and washed her hands before returning to the table.
“Would you mind saying grace?” she asked, too shy to pray aloud.
“Certainly,” Marlene replied, but before she had finished there was an impatient tattoo knocked at the front door. Jemimah opened her eyes and exchanged a surprised glance with Marlene, then walked to the door.
Perhaps if she’d been alone she would have peered through the window before opening the door, but Jemimah didn’t think of that, and found herself staring into the face of an unfamiliar and very agitated man.
“What’s this stuff you send home with my daughter? She says I gotta sign some book for her, but I dunno what it’s about.”
“Oh, are you Rosie’s dad?” she asked, recognising in his bleary blue eyes and short ginger hair the similarity to one of the seven year olds in her class. She had seen him meet the little girl at the school gate a couple of times, but had never had the opportunity to talk to him. “I haven’t met you before --”
He waved her comment away as though it were an irritating fly. “What’s this stuff she brings home? She keeps on about it, driving me mad.”
“It’s part of the home reading program --” she began, but he cut her off again.
“What’s it got to do with me then? You’re the teacher!” He leaned so close to Jemimah that could see every spike of golden stubble on his chin, glistening like sugar on a cinnamon doughnut. There was an unpleasant odour about him, like a sour and overly strong aftershave - and Jemimah took a subtle step backwards.
“We encourage the children to practice at home, as well as at school, to develop their reading skills,” she started to explain. Rosie was in her third year at school, but Jemimah had soon discovered that she’d mastered very little beyond the basics, and had been taking extra time working with her. “I know that it’s hard for some families, and I can help you if you’d like. We had an information night a few weeks ago to explain about what we’re doing, and to --”
“Well, I didn’t go to that. What do you reckon I’ve got to do?”
“I’d be very happy to explain it all to you. Why don’t you come and see me after school one day next week --”
“I’m here now, aren’t I?”
“I’m sorry, Mr …” Having already made the mistake with another school dad, Jemimah didn’t want to assume his surname was the same as his daughter’s, but the man didn’t supply the information for her either. “I’m very sorry, but it will take about half an hour to explain it all to you properly. I have a guest this evening, so I can’t --”
“You got no guest - that’s Marlene Hart’s car out the front. You just don’t want to talk to me, do you?”
Jemimah took a deep breath. “Of course I do, but I’m sorry - not tonight. I’m available every afternoon during the week, or if that doesn’t suit - we could arrange another time …” She broke off, as he began to swear. The words he directed toward her made her toes curl, and she began to edge her way behind the door.
The gist of it was that he’d heard she was stuck-up and thought herself too good to talk to anyone but her church friends. He really couldn’t be surprised she wasn’t bothered to talk to him let alone teach his daughter.
When he finished his diatribe he turned in disgust, nearly toppling off the top step. As he went back down the path Jemimah could hear his muttered comments that she translated to be a condemnation of “teachers who won’t do their own jobs”, and realised that her next door neighbour’s loud music had completely stopped. Probably so they could hear it all, she thought, shutting the door and double checking the lock.
She turned around to see Marlene standing only an arm’s length away, just out of sight of the doorway.
“Well done!” Marlene told her. “You handled that really well. I was right here in case you needed me, but you were going fine …”
Jemimah had opened her mouth to thank her, but found she couldn’t speak, every part of her body suddenly weak. Next thing she knew, Marlene had sat her down on the couch, and had brought her a glass of water.
“Thank you,” Jemimah whispered, when she’d taken a few sips and felt a little more like herself. “It’s just what he said … scared me a bit, that’s all. Does he really think that of me?”
Marlene shook her head. “No, that’s just the grog speaking. You knew he was drunk didn’t you?”
“No.” Jemimah’s eyes widened, and she wondered if that was the smell she’d mistaken for strong aftershave.
“You have had a sheltered life, haven’t you?” Marlene hugged Jemimah’s shoulders. “Graham is always like that when he’s had a few too many - I’d say that’s why he’s been sent on his way from the pub already. You did the right thing, you know. Even if you’d brought him in and tried to explain it all to him now, he wouldn’t have remembered any of it in the morning - and might think he’s got a standing invitation to come by on his way home from the pub anytime he’s got something on his mind about Rosie.”
Jemimah looked up at that, the whole episode seeming almost insignificant after that comment. “Poor Rosie! I had no idea …”
“I know. She’s an amazingly chirpy kid considering everything, isn’t she? We keep an eye on her though, and that’s why I’ve tried so hard to get Jarrah to come along on Friday nights. You know they’re step-sisters, don’t you?”
“No!” Jemimah frowned in confusion. “But they’re … so different.”
Marlene shrugged. “Different dads. Anyway, how about I reheat our dinner in the microwave and we have another go at it. At least that music’s stopped.”
Jemimah followed her to the table, but Marlene had just returned the plates to the table when another barrage of knocks on the front door made her jump again. She put her hand to her chest and smiled weakly at Marlene.
The knocking came again, followed by a loud, “Where are you woman? Aren’t you gonna let me in?”
“That’s John. Late home tonight,” Jemimah continued her commentary with a grimace, “I’d say there’s going to be some explaining to do.”
Her neighbour pounded on the door a third time, and to all of their relief, there came the sound of the door being opened.
“Where’s my tea?” The door next door shut behind him with a resounding bang, but his voice came clearly through the side wall.
“In the bin. You want to eat, you might try coming home on time.” His wife’s voice matched his for volume.
The man swore, and Jemimah pushed her own meal around her plate. It was bad enough listening to her neighbours carry on when she was home alone and she could try to pretend it wasn’t happening … but it was impossible to ignore with a guest at her table.
“Best place for the rubbish you cook anyway! You got any idea what it’s like working all day and comin’ home night after night to the smell of a decent meal - and it’s never my place. Oh, no - it’s not your cooking is it? It’s only ever coming from that little teacher girl’s next door!”
“Well, if that’s what you’re after, why don’t you go and see if she’ll have you?” The woman laughed unpleasantly.
“Yeah, anywhere’d be better than here! I’m going back to the pub - at least I’ll get something to eat and some decent company there.”
“Don’t you think you can sleep back in here tonight!” the woman hollered after him as the door slammed behind him. His footsteps sounded down the footpath and the TV next door went up another notch in volume.
Jemimah was blushing to the roots of her hair. “I’m so sorry, Marlene - it’s hardly a pleasant evening for you.”
“Oh, honey! Is it always like this?”
“No,” Jemimah shook her head, trying to make light of the situation. “The people in the flat on the other side of them are away this weekend. Usually by the time John’s back out on the footpath, yelling through the door, Terry comes out to tell him to shut up. Then John’s partner, Shelly, is outside to tell Terry off - and then Terry’s girlfriend pops her head out of the door to tear strips off Shelly - but at least John and Shelly end up going inside together. I wonder what will happen tonight? It’s better than a soapie, isn’t it?”
“Well, I can see why you don’t need a T.V.” Marlene agreed, patting Jemimah’s hand sympathetically.
It was the kindness in Marlene’s touch that nearly brought Jemimah undone, and she stared down at her plate, regarding the congealed gravy through a haze of unshed tears.
“I’m sorry, I’ve completely lost my appetite,” Jemimah admitted, unable to stand the sight of the food any longer. She took her plate through to the kitchen, and scraped it into the bin. The final stop for Matt Gordon’s special roast dinner, she thought miserably. After blowing her nose, she returned to the table, to see Marlene set her cutlery aside - her meal mostly finished.
“What a shame, Jemimah. It really was delicious.” Marlene was looking at Jemimah, her eyes full of concern. “Look, why don’t you come home with me tonight - you’re more than welcome. The kids are at Ma and Pa Hart’s so I can promise peace and quiet.”
Jemimah shook her head. “Thank you, but I’m really okay. I’m … I’m getting used to it.” It wasn’t entirely true, but Jemimah knew she would have to get used to it. “I’m sorry to be such a rotten hostess, but if you don’t mind I think I might just go to bed. I don’t think I’m really up to company just now. It’s been a hard week, and I’m sure I’ll feel much brighter after a good night’s sleep.”
“If you get one.” Marlene’s forehead was creased in a frown as she rose and rinsed her plate in the sink. “I had no idea it was like this here for you, Jemimah. Why don’t you move somewhere else? Is there any reason to stay here?”
Jemimah blinked a few times. “I guess I’ve never thought about it. This was the subsidised housing that the Department offered …” She sighed. Living there was hard, but the thought of looking for somewhere else was even harder. She had vague ideas of needing rental references and bonds … and who knew what else.
“It’s okay,” she continued, following Marlene as she picked up her handbag from the coffee table. “It’s noisy, but except for tonight, no-one’s ever come to my door or anything. And the neighbours are all perfectly polite to me if I pass them coming in or going out.”
Marlene kissed her goodnight, still looking unconvinced. “Are you sure you’re all right here on your own tonight?”
After reassuring her that she’d be fine, Jemimah saw her off from the door. When she’d heard Marlene’s car drive off, she switched off the lights in the main living area and headed straight for bed.
Despite Marlene’s kindness she felt utterly desolate - everything about her life seemed black and hopeless. She’d known there’d be no point taking up Marlene’s suggestion to sleep over - as the misery was in her heart, not just her flat - and she’d only take it along with her. At least on her own, she didn’t have to feel bad about being such rotten company.
As she reached over to turn off her bedside lamp, Jemimah’s hand brushed over her Bible, but she didn’t open it up. God seemed far away and she didn’t even feel like praying.
© R. L. Brown 2007