Jacaranda Plains

Chapter 31

"Then his face was somewhat browner,
and his frame was firmer set--
And he feels his flabby muscles
with a feeling of regret."

From “An Answer to Various Bards” ~ Banjo Patterson

With the fallen trunk cut into several pieces that were now stacked against the back of the shed, Michael stowed the axe inside the open shed and headed for the house. The stint of hard physical work had sent blood pumping hot through underused muscles, and he felt invigorated and alive.

He lifted his hat off and mopped his damp hair on his flannelette shirt, grinning up at the brilliant blue sky as he strode along the driveway. What a glorious morning! What a glorious start to the holidays! He had a car boot load trunk full
of school assignments to mark and lessons to prepare in the evenings, as well as a couple of theology texts his pastor had given him to read - but it would have to be pouring rain to keep him from the outdoors during daylight.

Jemimah had joked about his dad having a big list of chores for him, but the truth was Michael was writing it himself. The firewood was his own project but he looked forward to spending the rest of his break doing what he could to help Dad and Nan around the farm.

As Michael reached the house he paused to pull off his work boots, wondering what Jemimah was looking forward to most about returning home for the holidays. After being away from home for the first time, her longing to get back home would have to be even stronger than his.

Jemimah’s delicate sandals were lined up with the family’s motley collection of boots by the screen door, and as Michael placed his own heavy boots beside them he knocked one of them out of position. He picked it up, cradling it briefly in his hand. It was like a fairy slipper, feather-light and dainty - just like Jemimah. He restored it to its spot, smiling at the thought of her perched gracefully on the stump as she talked with him, her eyes as blue as the sky in a china-doll face and her hair spilling from her hat like spun sunshine.

She was just as ethereal as he remembered her - perhaps she really was a fairy, her wings folded out of sight from mere mortals like him?

He shook his head at such whimsical thoughts. Still, she was such a delicate little thing that it seemed a miracle that she was not only surviving - but thriving - out here in the Plains. Since he’d said goodbye to her before the start of term, his heart heavy with concern for her, it had been at the back of his mind that their paths mightn’t cross again anytime soon. What a blessing to have had that chance to catch up with her, hear how God had answered his prayers that she’d have the strength and faith to cope.

The warm aroma of baking lasagne met Michael as he opened the door, forcibly reminding him how long it had been since breakfast. Nan and Jemimah were slicing salad vegetables by the sink, and both looked up as he came into the family room.

Michael greeted them with a smile but frowned as he caught sight of the kitchen clock. He could hardly credit how quickly the morning had gone. It was past midday already, and if Angie didn’t arrive in the next few minutes, there’d be no way the girls would make it back to Newcastle before dark.

“Has anyone heard from Angie?”

Jemimah merely shook her head, but Nan’s expression was less forgiving.

“No - not a word,” she said grimly. “We were just thinking of ringing the Winslows and making sure everything’s okay.”

“I’ll do that if you like.” Michael walked over to the breakfast bar that divided the kitchen from the family area, and picked up the handset of the wall-mounted phone. He dialled the number, and leant back against the wall as he waited for it to answer, absently watching Nan and Jemimah in the kitchen. His phone conversations with Nan throughout the term left him in no doubt of her fondness for Jemimah, and he felt glad to see them working so comfortably together.

Jemimah wore one of Nan’s aprons over her long dress, and it enhanced the old-fashioned quality he associated with her. Hardly any of the young women he knew wore flowing dresses or skirts like that; it seemed always to be jeans or pants, or if anything an occasional short fitted skirt. Nothing wrong with that, but not nearly as feminine as the kind of things he’d seen Jemimah wear.

The phone finally answered, Mr Winslow’s cultured voice snapping him out of his musings. Michael forced a smile to his lips, the way he’d trained himself to deal with Mr and Mrs Winslow.

“Mr Winslow, it’s Michael Turnbull here. How are you?”

“Fine, Michael. Are you back home on holidays again already? It seems like you only just went back to work the other day.”

“The time does go quickly, doesn’t it. I was just-”

“I expect it does for you teachers,” Mr Winslow interrupted with a condescending laugh, “having another two weeks’ holidays every time you turn around. I wonder how you’d cope with a real job, Michael?”

Michael sighed. He couldn’t count the times that Mr Winslow had said virtually the same thing to him. Once it had aggravated him so much that he’d tallied up the out-of-hours time he spent on extra-curricular activities with the students, as well as all the preparation and marking and averaged the hours over a year. He’d been tempted to show it to Mr Winslow, along with an accounting of the hours he spent in church work and study, and ask him how it compared to a “real” nine-to-five job, but providentially his temper had cooled before he’d seen him again. There would have been no point - Mr Winslow didn’t really want to know, anyway.

“I’m actually ringing about Angie,” Michael pressed on, “she headed out to pick up something from Mrs Winslow before ten, and we really expected her back hours ago. Is she still there?”

“No, they headed into Wee Waa together to collect something for Sonja just after ten. They should be back any time now.”

Michael compressed his lips. At the time she was meant to be leaving from home, Angie had headed off in the opposite direction.

“Thanks. Would you mind asking her to come home as soon as she gets back?”

“Sure. Is there anything else?”

“No, thank you. I’ll see you at church tomorrow, Mr Winslow. Have a nice day.”

“Goodbye, Michael. Enjoy your holidays,” the older man replied with a patronising chuckle.

Michael replaced the receiver with a long sigh. Although the Winslows had been in his church most of his life, he still struggled with his feelings concerning them. It was times like this he had to remember one of the defining marks of a Christian was that he learned to love those brethren that he mightn’t naturally like. It wasn’t that he could point out anything specifically ungodly about them - they said and did all the right things - he just found them … snobby.

Perhaps it only bothered him as much as it did because Angie was dazzled by their overt sophistication, and seemed intent on impressing them. She’d always idolised Sonja and her brother Derek, and tried to insinuate herself into their circle any way she could - even emulating the way Sonja and her friends dressed and acted.

Letting down a true friend like Jemimah for the sake of keeping up appearances with the Winslows was exactly the kind of behaviour that worried him about his youngest sister.

“Angie’s gone into Wee Waa with Mrs Winslow,” Michael explained to Nan and Jemimah, not succeeding to keep the annoyance out of his voice. “Apparently whatever Mrs Winslow wanted to send through to Sonja had to be collected from Wee Waa first. I’m sorry Jemimah, I’d like to apologise and say that Angie isn’t normally as thoughtless as this, but unfortunately she can be.”

Jemimah didn’t say anything, but the way she pressed her lips together into the semblance of a smile pulled at Michael’s heart. He smiled encouragingly. “But they could be back at the Winslows any minute now - and their place is only twenty minutes from here. If she comes straight away you still might just make it before dark.”

She nodded, and quickly looked back down at the chopping board, conspicuously intent on slicing the tomatoes.

“Thanks for ringing, Mikey. At least now we know.” Nan glanced at Jemimah, a frown on her face. “I’m thinking we should go ahead and have lunch - Angie can eat something on the way. Mikey, can you get your Dad after you’ve cleaned up?”

Michael took the hint and headed for the bathroom. From the hall he heard Nan speaking to Jemimah in a tone that reminded him of having his own hurts soothed as a boy, but couldn’t catch what she said. Poor Jemimah - he could only imagine how she must be feeling right now. As he scrubbed his face over the sink, Michael kept his ears open for the sound of a returning vehicle. Surely Angie would be back any minute.

There was still no sign or sound of his errant little sister by the time they had finished lunch. Although they’d chatted over the meal - there was always a lot to catch up after a term away - it did little to distract Michael’s attention from the brutal passage of time. Jemimah was polite, but said very little, and Michael noticed that she ate hardly anything. From the surreptitious glances his father and Nan kept directing at the clock, it was obvious they were similarly preoccupied by Angie’s absence.

It was a relief when Nan finally declared the meal over by beginning to collect the plates. “Why don’t you see if there’s a box of ice creams in the freezer, Mikey?” she suggested, discreetly placing Jemimah’s nearly full plate under her own. “I could do with something sweet, and I’ve never known either of you boys to say no to dessert. You’ll have one too, won’t you Jemimah?”

Jemimah shook her head. She had stood to help clear the table, but even when Nan waved away her assistance, had remained on her feet.

“It’s one o’clock now,” she said softly, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “There’s no way we would arrive before dark. We’ll just have to leave the trip home until Monday, but I’d better phone and let my parents know I won’t be home tonight.

“Monday?” Michael’s dad queried her.

Jemimah glanced up. “I wouldn’t feel right travelling tomorrow. We’d miss church altogether, and going on holidays isn’t … well, it’s not worshipping God, and it’s hardly a work of necessity or of mercy either.”

Michael shot an impressed look at his dad, who met his eyes with a smile.

“Jemimah’s been reading the Confession of Faith I gave her,” his father explained, and then turned to Jemimah. “I didn’t know you’d gotten so far into it.”

“Oh - I haven’t really. It was just that I read that section and looked up the Scriptures so many times when I was talking to … um, well, a little while back when I was trying to understand the Lord’s Day.” A red blush crept up her neck and onto her face as she took a hasty step back from the table. “If you’ll excuse me, I’d better ring Mum and Dad and let them know the change in plans.”

“Use the phone in the living room if you like, sweetheart,” Nan offered, reaching out to pat her arm.

“Thank you, but - but I’ve still got a lot of unused call credits on my mobile,” Jemimah answered, lifting a tiny silver phone from her handbag on the breakfast bar and looking intently at its screen. “I’ll just go outside - I - I think there’ll be better reception out there.”

Like a wisp of breeze, she evanesced from the room, and the screen door closed soundlessly behind her.

Michael could barely hear her light footsteps crossing the pavers. “Poor kid. She was so excited about getting home tonight. I could throttle Angie.” He gathered up the plates Nan handed him and carried them back into the kitchen.

“You and I both son,” his Dad smiled grimly, “Jemimah’s done really well settling in, but it’s been a hard term for her all the same. I know how she’s been counting down the days to seeing her family again. Will you put the kettle on while you’re in there?”

“Sure.” A nice cup of tea would be exactly what they needed, thought Michael. Especially Jemimah, after breaking it to her parents it would be another two days until she’d be home.

Jemimah could barely see the blurred keypad of her phone to disconnect the call. She thought she’d been handling her disappointment well - until she’d had to tell her mum she wouldn’t be coming until Monday. While her mum accepted it was too late to travel that afternoon, she thought Jemimah’s decision not to travel on Sunday ridiculous - and demanded to know why she’d become so legalistic all of a sudden.

Her mother’s uncharacteristic reaction stung her like a slap across the cheek, and she burst into tears. Her father had come onto the phone just then, but his conciliating explanation that her mother wasn’t really cranky at her - just disappointed after looking forward to having her home - only made Jemimah feel worse.

Even after her father’s affectionate farewell, Jemimah’s tears didn’t stop. Now the tension of the last few hours of waiting for Angie had found an outlet, it far overpowered her will to be positive.

Jemimah leaned back against the warm wall at the end of the Turnbull’s house, not caring that the rough bricks scratched her skin and pulled at her hair. She felt dreadful about making such a mess of everything - again. If only she hadn’t agreed to travel with Angie … if only she hadn’t changed plans so she might see Michael first by meeting Angie here … if only …

But instead of drowning in her recriminations, the lessons Jemimah had learnt over the past term began to rise to the surface of her consciousness. There was no point going over all the “ifs”. What was done was done and now she had to ask God for the grace to make the best of it.

She breathed out her prayer, newly determined to look forward rather than mope about the unexpected turn of events. Despite the nagging feeling that she’d deliberately chosen seeing Michael over returning home to her parents like she’d promised, Jemimah couldn’t honestly regret the time she’d had talking with him that morning.

Michael was … even more wonderful than she’d remembered. It was hard to believe that a man like him would bother taking the time to find out how she was going, and treat her as though she was worthwhile listening to - and sharing with. He hadn’t even made her feel small when she’d been so frightened by the dogs.

Apart from that unfortunate overreaction, Jemimah recalled, she’d managed to conduct herself reasonably maturely in front of him. It wouldn’t do to ruin that impression now, by carrying on like a disappointed child because her trip had been postponed.

Jemimah carefully dried her face with her hankie. She would much prefer to retreat to the solace of her own cottage - but it was only right to wait until Angie came home. After feeling so let down, she felt intensely uncomfortable about facing her friend, but they had to make new arrangements for Monday, and it was always possible that Angie had experienced a of breakdown with the car or some other unavoidable delay.

As much as Jemimah wanted to give Angie the benefit of the doubt, she knew that was unlikely. For Angie’s sake, though, she hoped there was some excuse that would placate everyone. It was obvious that Michael and his Dad and Nan were less than impressed with her, and the ominous tension she sensed among them made her dread what might be said when Angie finally arrived.

I’ll just try to play it all down, Jemimah decided, and make the alternative plans for Monday as smoothly as possible - then leave.

She just needed a couple more minutes out there in the quiet, and she’d be ready to face the Turnbull’s with a smile. Perhaps if no-one suspected she’d been at all upset by the change of plans they’d go much easier on Angie …

Jemimah never got those couple of minutes.

She’d been wary of the dogs from the moment she’d left the house to make her call, but they had been nowhere to be seen. Since she hadn’t driven in and had been careful not to make any sound with the door, she’d hoped the dogs would remain far off in a paddock somewhere, having no reason to come looking for her. Now, however, she saw the unmistakable shape of Aspro making her way steadily toward the house.

Jemimah bolted to the front door; the dog’s excited barking adding wings to her flight. The animal brought an overpowering stench as she raced up behind her, but Jemimah made it inside the door in time, her throat constricting as she pulled the screen closed.

The Turnbulls swung round at the sound of the door slamming, and Jemimah laughed a little hysterically as she backed away.

“I made it,” she said, thankful for the distraction the dog made as it jumped against the screen, yelping. Trying not to gag, she waved her hand in front of her face, determined to make light of the situation. “Whose job is it to wash Aspro, by the way?”

“I seem to recall that she’s actually Mikey’s dog,” Nan answered with a grin, “I look after her while he’s away - but when he’s home… Why, what has she been up to?”

“I don’t know, but it’s pretty bad.” Jemimah closed her mouth tightly, moving as far away from the door as she could.

“Phew - you’re right! I can smell her from here. What have you been rolling in, girl?” Michael called affectionately as he walked toward the doorway. “Whatever it was, I think it’s been dead for some time. I know what I’ll be doing this afternoon then.”

He looked up sharply at the sound of gravel crunching under a car on the driveway, his expression making Jemimah catch her breath.

“Only three hours late, Miss Turnbull,” Michael muttered darkly, and went outside to meet his sister.

© R. L. Brown 2007

Eos Development