Jacaranda Plains

Chapter 30

"He had drifted in among us
as a straw drifts with the tide,
He was just a wand’ring mongrel
from the weary world outside."

From “A Dog’s Mistake” ~ Banjo Patterson

Jemimah’s hands shook as she lifted the latch on the wide metal gate at the top of the Turnbull’s driveway.

Tonight she’d be home with her family, going to sleep in her own bed in her own room, and before then - she wiped her damp palms on her hanky, and dragged the gate open - just maybe, before she and Angie left for Newcastle, she might see Michael Turnbull again.

The tumult of feelings that had made it impossible to eat breakfast now made her stomach feel like she was on an amusement park ride rather than driving her car through the gate. Jemimah hopped out and closed the gate behind her, wishing she was already on her way to Newcastle. As much as she longed to see Michael, she knew she’d probably embarrass herself terribly; blush bright red if he so much as looked in her direction, and if he spoke to her - she’d be sure to stumble over her words … if she even managed to say anything at all.

As she steered carefully along the two wheel tracks that represented the driveway, it occurred to her it was more than likely Michael would still be asleep in bed after his late return the previous night. If Angie was ready and waiting for her, she mightn’t even go inside the house. The mixture of relief and disappointment made her slump in her seat as though the elastic cord of tension that had been holding her upright had lost its spring, and she only half noted the man swinging an axe into a dead tree just behind the Turnbull’s machinery shed.

Too lightly built to be Pastor Turnbull, and dressed in faded jeans and a checked flannelette shirt, Jemimah dismissed him as one of the local guys that occasionally did a little extra labour around the property. She suspected Pastor Turnbull’s motive in hiring them was less for an actual need for help than as an opportunity for getting to know them. She knew that after working side-by-side with them, Pastor Turnbull inevitably invited them in to share a meal with him and Nan and whoever else was at home at the time.

If she’d thought about it, she probably would have found it unusual that Pastor Turnbull was nowhere in sight, but her mind was already on the occupants of the house at the end of the driveway. She didn’t even give the young man a second glance until he turned at the sound of her car, and swept off his battered Akubra hat to wave.

Michael! His name caught in Jemimah’s throat as he strode across the grass toward her, the two cattle dogs running in excited circles at his feet. He looked so different than she remembered him in his neat suit trousers and shirt and tie. She hurriedly pressed her foot to the brake and pulled up beside him.

On his way around to her window, he pulled off his flannelette shirt and wiped it across his face, exposing the torn collar and stained fabric of the old T-shirt beneath. He was breathing hard and his face and neck were glistening with sweat.

“Good to see you, Jemimah,” Michael’s white teeth flashed in a broad smile, “I was hoping I’d get to catch up with you before you left. Angie’s not back yet - she ducked out a little while ago. Can you give me a couple of minutes? I’ll just get this tree down, I’m all but through, then I’d love to hear how you’ve been getting on while you wait for Ange. Why don’t you park your car in the shed out of the sun?”

“Sure.” When Michael stepped back Jemimah steered the car into the open front of the machinery shed that he’d indicated. He actually wants to speak to me! Her body tingled with a lemonade-like effervescence and her mind was misty - probably because she’d forgotten to breathe - but she’d made it through meeting him again without saying more than a single word. And Michael had already turned back toward the tree, so she even had chance to steady her nerves before joining him again. Thank you, God!

Jemimah took several deep breaths to ready herself before opening the door. She shut it just as quickly again though, when she realised the dogs hadn’t gone with Michael but had followed her car into the shed. Their enthusiastic snuffling made her cringe, and she wound her window rapidly after the whitish one raised its paws onto the door. She sat, her heart pounding, a hostage in her own car. Usually one of the Turnbulls grabbed the dogs when she arrived - but she hadn’t driven up to the house this time, and Michael wouldn’t know about her mortal fear of dogs.

I can’t sit here forever, she told herself. He’ll wonder why I haven’t joined him … he might even think I don’t want to talk to him. Jemimah slid across to the passenger seat, hoping to elude the dogs’ detection.

They aren’t going to bite me … they’re just being friendly … just ignore them … pretend you’re not afraid … she tried repeating as she slipped out the other side of the car. Within seconds, the animals were around her legs, banging into her with their solid bodies, their strong, doggy odour making her nose cringe.

Jemimah flattened herself against the car, only the knowledge of Michael waiting outside the shed keeping her from climbing back into the car through the window. Somehow, she made herself push through the dogs, and kept her feet taking one step after another as they ran in circles around her.

Even if they attack me, surely they won’t be able to do too much damage before Michael hears my screams … Jemimah’s attempts at reassuring herself only made it worse. Even the momentary consideration of those sharp teeth and claws made her feel faint. She froze, too frightened to take another step.

Her hands were halfway to her face when a shrill whistle made her jump. The dogs immediately dropped back and Jemimah looked up to see Michael at the corner of the shed.

“Here, girls! Come!” He sent Jemimah an apologetic smile as they ran to his summons. “Sorry, I forgot about the dogs. They had you bailed up, did they?”

She took a few steps, trying to look nonchalant. “Thanks. I’m still getting used to … their enthusiasm.”

Michael’s eyes narrowed as he peered into the shadows at her. Feeling her face heating up under his scrutiny, Jemimah quickly turned back to the car. “I’ll be with you in a moment. I’d better get my hat.” She couldn’t bear for him to know how frightened she was by those dogs, even after visiting so many times. Angie had told her the dogs accepted her as part of the family now and said how silly it was to worry over them, and Jemimah was ashamed of her weakness. She would just have to try harder to ignore the way she felt.

By the time Jemimah joined Michael in the sunshine, her wide-brimmed hat shading her face, he was back at work on the tree, and she had herself fully in hand. Although she stiffened, she didn’t allow herself to flinch as the two dogs wandered over to her, pressing their wet noses against her legs. When she managed to hold herself still until they lost interest and headed off under a wire fence into the paddock, she felt as though she’d gained a small victory.

Michael had cut a large notch that went nearly through to the centre of the tree trunk, and Jemimah watched in fascination as he swung his axe into a lower notch on the opposite side. Flecks of pale wood flew as the axe bit into the trunk, Michael’s body moving with a fluid, steady rhythm. The thin white T-shirt clung damply to his shoulders and torso, and sweat beaded on his forehead.

There was something so powerful, so inherently masculine about the way he looked right then that fiery heat rushed to the surface of Jemimah’s skin. She tore her gaze away, confused and embarrassed, and focussed on the pile of lopped branches just beyond him. Michael’s shadow danced across them, and the iron of the axe sang out its final strokes before he stepped quickly to the near side of the trunk.

“Here she goes!”

Jemimah snapped out of her trance in time to see it slowly list. Michael leant a steadying hand on the trunk, ready to guide it, but with a snap like electricity arcing, the tree fell straight and true across the first notch. He turned around to Jemimah, his cheeks dimpled by his wide grin.

“Wow. I’ve never seen anyone do that except on TV,” she said, his boyish delight in his effort making her forget her own awkwardness, “I thought everyone just used chainsaws these days.”

Michael laughed. His chest was still heaving from exertion, but it was a sound that rumbled with deep satisfaction. “I think anyone with half a brain would. But where’s the challenge in that? Here,” he wiped his palms on the front of his faded jeans, and gripped the axe handle again. With a couple of deft chops he smoothed the top of the stump and then spread his flannelette shirt over it with a flourish. “Have a seat, Jemimah.”

She carefully lowered herself to the freshly hewn seat as Michael took a long slug from a water bottle then sat down on the grass at her feet.

“Thanks for waiting, I was just so close to finishing. I didn’t want to cool off before I got it down.” He was still breathing hard, and paused to push a damp lock of hair from his forehead as he looked up at her. “But I didn’t want to miss the chance of saying hello - Ange will be back any minute, and then you’ll be off.”

Jemimah nodded, suddenly feeling shy again. It was still hard to believe he wanted to sit and chat with her, although maybe he was just being kind since Angie wasn’t there.

“Where did she go?”

“Mrs Winslow phoned and asked her to pick up something for Sonja. She left about,” Michael glanced at his watch, “three quarters of an hour ago. She shouldn’t be more than another ten or fifteen minutes. What time were you planning to leave?”

“Around ten. One of my headlights is broken, so I need to make sure I get home in daylight.”

“I noticed that as you drove in.” The corners of Michael’s eyes crinkled in a sympathetic grimace. “What happened?”

Jemimah couldn’t help but smile. Jack Hart’s response on seeing her car had been a blunt “What did you hit?”

“A cockatoo. Everyone keeps telling me to not swerve off the road if something comes at me but …” Jemimah shuddered at the memory of the feathers scattering across her windscreen, but tried to make light of it. “I don’t know that I’ll ever get used to driving in a place where half a zoo is waiting to jump out on the road in front of me.”

Michael laughed. “Sounds like you’re getting the full introduction to country life, then. And I hear you’ve moved out to the Hart’s. How are you finding it? You weren’t happy in town, were you?”

Jemimah shook her head, caught by a pair of intense brown eyes that seemed to look right inside her. She’d been at her very lowest that morning he’d rung and his call had been a huge turning point for her. If only she could tell him how much she’d appreciated his phone call and his encouragement, and share how she’d experienced the truth of his promise that God would look after her - but she didn’t dare.

It was almost more than she could handle to just sit there beside him without betraying the extent of her feelings for him. Treading the fine line of thanking him without letting on how much his call had meant to her was far too risky.

“Moving out there has been wonderful. It was such an answer to prayer,” she said simply. Her heart turned over as he smiled, looking as pleased as if it had been his own prayers that had been answered.

“Yes, God is certainly good to us,” he agreed, his voice as warm as the sunshine on her back. “Far better than we deserve. How are things at school?”

Jemimah had forgotten how quickly Michael’s gentle manner had put her at ease that first Sunday night she’d met him, and after only a few minutes she became completely absorbed in the conversation. He seemed genuinely interested in her experiences, as though he had a personal investment in her success and was pleased to see a good return. When she hesitated, worried she must be boring him, he prodded her on with more questions, nodding slowly as she answered. The sense that he felt she’d done well filled her with a giddy elation.

The air was warm and smelled of grass and cattle, and a gentle breeze kept teasing the stray lock of hair back across Michael’s forehead as he listened to her. Jemimah had never felt as happy in her life or as comfortable with herself as she did right then. She had never imagined someone could be so easy to talk to - it was as though Michael understood what she was meaning, even when she struggled to express herself. Somehow the questions he asked brought out the most positive aspects of the school term, and the way he chuckled at her self-deprecatory asides made her feel as thought she were actually witty.

“And what about you?” Jemimah asked, ready for the focus to be off her. “I thought you might be sleeping-in after your long drive last night.”

Michael stretched his arms above his head and then lay back on the grass, squinting up at the sky. “And waste a gorgeous morning like this? It is just so good to be out of the city. I can’t bear to waste a moment of being here - it goes far too quickly as it is. Not that I’m not thankful for my work in Sydney,” he added quickly, his expression earnest as he turned his face toward her, “but it’s just great to be home.”

Michael might give the impression of a newly released prisoner, but as soon as he began to tell Jemimah about his students and colleagues at his school and his work in the church, she was in no doubt about the depth of his commitment to them. She leaned forward with her elbows on her knees as she listened, thrilled that he would share so much with her. It seemed hard to believe he was talking to her as though she were a real, grown-up person. Could it be possible he thought of her like that?

No, of course not! He’s used to talking to silly schoolgirls, after all, Jemimah’s inner voice rebuked her ridiculous fantasy, but she longed to prove it wrong. If only I could show him that I have grown up since I first came here, that I’m not such a child any more--

Something firm banged against her side, a short snout pushed under her arm, and moist teeth slid against her bare skin. Jemimah screamed as the smell of dog filled her throat, and leapt up onto the stump in terror.

The cattle dog backed up in surprise, then stood regarding her, its tail wagging with interest in this new game. Jemimah stared back, her hands lifted protectively in front of her face. She’d been so focussed on Michael that she hadn’t heard the dog coming, hadn’t had a chance to steel herself against the involuntarily reaction. And now her heart was pounding so fast, telling herself not to worry had come too late.

Michael was already on his feet, and quickly moved between Jemimah and the dog. “Get out of here, Flash!” he growled, and when the dog hesitated he gave it a flick on its solid rump. “Go on! Get!” He pointed toward the paddock, and the dog, its tongue still lolling out one side of its mouth, seemed to grin back at him before ambling slowly away.

“She wouldn’t have hurt you, you know, she was just being friendly,” Michael turned to her apologetically.

Jemimah ran her tongue over her dry lips. “I know. It just took me by surprise … I didn’t think.”

Michael reached for her hand to steady her as she stepped down off the stump, his hand suddenly tightening on hers.

“You’re shaking,” he said, his mouth grim. “She really terrified you.”

Jemimah shrugged, embarrassed by his concern, and pulled her betraying hand free. “It’s okay, I’m just not used to dogs.”

Michael shook his head. “No - it’s more than that, isn’t it?”

His eyes demanded an answer, and Jemimah shrugged again, wishing she could crawl under a rock somewhere. She gave in to her wobbly legs and sat back down on the stump, looking at the ground.

“I was bitten on the face when I was little,” she admitted, her hand going subconsciously to her nose. “We were visiting some people - and supposedly the dog would never hurt anyone ... but …”

“It’s no wonder you’re frightened of dogs.” Michael squatted on the ground beside her, and looked up into her eyes, the empathy in his making her feel guilty.

Jemimah shook her head. “No - it was such a long time ago. I was five years old, and it wasn’t even a big bite. I should be long over it.”

“Not if you’ve had nothing to do with dogs since. I feel rotten - I had no idea and just let them run after you when you parked your car.”

He smiled suddenly, his cheeks creasing just like Jemimah had seen in his photos.

“What you need is to be able to play with a little puppy, and get to really know a dog while it’s small and non-threatening. Even if you only visited it every week or two you’d hardly notice it getting bigger - and then the next thing you know there’ll be a fully grown dog that you’re completely comfortable with. You might still feel wary of other dogs you don’t know, but once you become a little more confident about even one dog you should lose some of the fear. You know--”

Michael stopped short with a sigh and a frustrated grimace. “No. For a moment I thought how nice it would be to have a pup around here again, but I’m away so much that it just wouldn’t be fair to foist it onto Nan. But there’s bound to be someone in the church with a new pup. I’ll ask around.”

“Please don’t feel you have to trouble over it,” Jemimah murmured quietly. She was grateful that he hadn’t been annoyed by her silly fear, but didn’t want to burden him with it.

“I didn’t even ask if you wanted me to!” Michael shook his head, smiling ruefully. “Sorry, Jemimah. Would you rather me just mind my own business?”

“Oh no, if you think it would help I don’t mind you asking around,” she replied, managing a small chuckle. “So long as you don’t announce it from the pulpit or anything.”

Michael rocked back on his heels and laughed. “No, I was actually thinking of more discreet inquiries. I guess you’ve already discovered how well the bush telegraph  Slang for the rapid spreading of information, rumours, etc, usually by word of mouth.
works around here. It takes a while to get used to, doesn’t it?”

His eyes were intent on her as she nodded, and Jemimah’s stomach tightened with dread. You’ve already discovered how well the bush telegraph works … What else could he be referring to than the whole episode with Matt Gordon and the gossip he’d begun about her and the church? Michael obviously knew a little about what had occurred - he’d said on the phone that he was aware she was going through a hard time - but how much he knew, she had no idea.

Michael’s focus remained fixed on her, and Jemimah sat in silent agony, wondering if he was waiting for her to explain.

“You don’t have any scars,” he said finally, catching Jemimah so much by surprise that she could only blink.

“I’m sorry?”

“On your face - from the dog bite.”

“Oh … no. It really wasn’t bad at all, that’s why I feel ridiculous still being so scared of dogs,” Jemimah told him, faint with relief at the simplicity of his comment. “I was taken to hospital but it didn’t even need stitching - they just cleaned it up and put a huge bandaid over the whole thing. At the time, that was the worst part of it.”

She shook her head slowly, smiling at the memory. “I was so embarrassed by this great big bandaid across my nose that I didn’t want to go to church, because I thought everyone would think how ridiculous I looked. Then my big sister put one of the spare bandaids across her nose, so we would both look the same. I think now how that must have looked - two little girls with these plasters across their noses, but at the time all I knew was if Keren did something, I wanted to do it too.”

“She sounds like a very special big sister. Are you still close?”

“Oh, yes. This is actually the longest we’ve ever been apart. We’ve talked on the phone a bit this term … but I’m not really that good on the phone. I can’t wait to see her again.” Thoughts of her childhood and her family brought a fresh sense of homesickness, and Jemimah looked down at her watch. She’d been completely unaware of the passing of time, but well over an hour had passed since she’d arrived, and there was still no sign of Angie.

She quickly stood up. “I’m really surprised that Angie’s not back. I hope nothing’s happened to her.”

Michael checked his own watch and frowned. “She’s cutting it fine, isn’t she? I hope she’s remembering it gets darker earlier on the coast. Still, if you don’t have any long stops you should still just make it in daylight if you leave before noon. Hopefully she’ll be back any minute.”

Jemimah nodded. “I’d better go up to the house and see if anyone’s heard from Angie. It’s been lovely talking to you Michael, thank you.”

“My pleasure.” He smiled and reached down and picked up his flannelette shirt from the stump. “Would you mind telling Nan I’ll be up in about half an hour or so? I’ll just get this trunk cut into a few manageable pieces before I leave it.”

“Your Dad must have a pretty big list of chores waiting for your holidays,” Jemimah teased as she started to walk away. “If you have to get a tree down and chopped before lunch on the first day you’re here, I shudder to think what he’s lined up for the rest of your break.”

Michael’s appreciative laugh and the warm glint in his eyes made Jemimah feel as though she’d been hugged.

“No, Dad hasn’t got a list for me at all. And if he did, this tree wouldn’t be on it - he’d leave it there indefinitely, I’m sure. But I’ve had my eye on it for firewood for a while, and I’ve been looking forward to making a start on it,” he glanced down at the fallen log, his satisfaction still evident. “No-one else here goes to the trouble of setting up our fireplace in winter, but I think there’s few things nicer than sitting around an open fire on a chilly winter’s night.”

The thought of Michael stoking a roaring fire on a winter’s night was so romantic that Jemimah’s cheeks were as warm as if she were sitting in front of the hearth herself. “Does it get very cold here?”

“You’d better believe it! Make sure you bring back your winter clothes with you from home - it will already be very cold by the end of next term. But that’s the fun of winter out here, getting the fire going, having bonfires and going out to the bore.”

“What’s the bore?” Jemimah asked, tingling with the realisation that he seemed in no hurry to part from her.

“Burren Bore. Hasn’t anyone taken you out there yet? It’s a natural artesian spring over at Burren Junction. It doesn’t look much - just a couple of huge, round concrete tanks filled with the water that’s pumped up from underground - but it’s over my head in the deepest parts and steaming hot. A group of us usually go out there at least once every winter - we’ll have to make sure we arrange it one time before you go home for the holidays. We make a night of it, there’s a great dining room at the Burren Pub, so we often go there for dinner first and then stay in the bore until it’s really late and no-one else is there. It’s an experience you don’t want to miss.”

Jemimah had to struggle not to show her excitement. Not only had Michael Turnbull sat around chatting with her like an old friend for over an hour, he wanted her to go out to one of his favourite places with him and his friends. It hardly seemed possible. Could he also feel some interest in her?

“It certainly sounds like fun - I hope I do get a chance to go along sometime,” she murmured, trying hard to sound casual.

“Good. Angie loves going, so I know she’ll make sure we organise something if you’re interested. Nan’s been telling me how much you and Angie have been doing together - and I’m so glad to hear it. I’m truly pleased that Angie’s found a friend like you. But speaking of my little sister,” he frowned, looking back along the empty drive, “I’d better let you go and see if anyone’s heard from her.”

“Yes, I’d better, it is getting late. I’ll see you shortly.”

He picked up the axe and Jemimah began to walk away, her ephemeral hopes of his special interest vaporising as quickly as they’d been conjured up. How could she be so silly? He was simply wanting to know more about this new friend of his little sister’s, and his invitation to the Burren Bore was nothing more personal than expecting a friend of Angie’s to go along with whatever she was doing.

A smothered yelp came from Michael’s direction, and Jemimah turned to see him sheepishly sucking his palm.

“You haven’t cut yourself, have you?”

“No, just a blood blister.” He held out his hand to show her. “There’s a split in the axe handle, and it pinches my skin if I forget to watch for it. I should really replace the handle, but the axe was my grandfather’s and … well, they don’t make ‘em the way they used to.”

The wistfulness in Michael’s voice and the softening of his eyes as he glanced down at the axe melted something inside Jemimah. There was more to this whole tree-cutting endeavour than a desire for fresh air and a supply of firewood.

“Hold on, I’ve got just the thing for you,” she told him and quickly retrieved her handbag from the car. “Here, a bandaid will fix just about anything. I keep a good supply with me at school - the children are always getting themselves into scrapes.”

‘Like me, huh?” Michael grinned, holding out his injured palm. Jemimah took his large hand in hers, trying to act as naturally as possible as she applied the colourful dinosaur bandaid over the injured skin. His fingers were long and strong, but his nails were smoothly filed and his skin soft from months of sedate desk work. At the rate he was going, Jemimah suspected his hands would not look quite as much the hands of a teacher by the end of the holidays.

“All better now,” Jemimah said reassuringly as though he were one of her pupils.

Michael’s eyes danced with amusement as he flexed his hand, and looked down at the child-sized bandaid, “Thank you, Miss Parker.”

“Oh, and your axe.” Jemimah ducked her head down quickly to hide the colour that had flooded her face with the sudden intimacy. She unwrapped another two bandaids and stretched them over the spilt in the wooden handle.

“That might help a little …” she said, Michael’s warm chuckle as he inspected his axe making her feel suddenly shy. “Now I must go and see if there’s any message from Angie.”

She turned and moved quickly away, not daring to glance back at Michael lest she expose the effect his closeness had on her. Even though it was more than obvious his only interest in her was as his little sister’s friend, it had been wonderful … almost too wonderful … to have spent that time chatting with him. She felt almost glad that Angie was running so late.

Yet as Jemimah approached the house and heard the familiar sounds of Nan pottering in the kitchen, her heart sank. Nan would have heard her car when she first arrived, not to mention the fanfare the dogs gave her - and despite what she’d said to Michael, she knew if there’d been any message from Angie, Nan would certainly have come and told her.

Jemimah glanced at her watch one more time, wishing it might have stopped moving. It was over an hour and a half past the time they’d arranged to leave - and if Angie wasn’t home very shortly, her chance to return home that night would be gone.

© R. L. Brown 2007

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