"The hours of lessons – hours with feet of clay
Each hour a day, each day more like a week”
From “Old Schooldays” ~ Banjo Patterson
The sound of movement at the entrance to the machinery shed brought Michael’s head up so quickly that he grazed his temple against the underside of the old paddock ute.
Could it be them?
He slid out from under the vehicle in time to see Nan’s kitten leap down from the top of the diesel drum. The water bottle Michael had perched up there was on its side, dripping, and his watch had been knocked down into the dirt.
“Are you looking for trouble or something, Puss?” he chided, righting the water bottle while the slight ginger cat wound itself around his ankles. Michael rubbed its neck as he bent to retrieve his watch. He wiped off the dirt and stared at the time for a long moment before replacing the watch on the drum. The hands had hardly moved since last time he’d checked.
“Too quiet up at the house for you?”
The cat mewed as if in reply, and pushed its head against Michael’s leg, demanding more attention. Without thinking, Michael obliged, stroking the cat’s silky fur as he sat down on the wheel ramp and took a sip from his water bottle.
It was quiet. His Dad was holed up in his study, making up for spending more hours than he’d budgeted on working with him on the engine that morning, and Nan had gone out to the Hart’s with Gabrielle to confer on wedding plans with Mrs Hart and Marlene. Angie and Jemimah were yet to arrive home.
Michael squinted along the empty driveway with a frown, checked his watch one more time, then crawled back under the old ute. Even though he’d been listening out for the sound of a car for the past hour or so, it probably was a little early to expect the girls back. The plan had been for Jemimah to pick up Angie from the train station in Newcastle that morning and for them to continue home directly from there. With Angie in the equation though, who’d know if they'd even left on time?
Maybe it was the mellow autumn sunshine that made it seem so much later than it was. Although his holidays usually sprinted past as though racing him back to Sydney, inexplicably today the hours seemed to have leaden feet.
It’s just wanting to know the girls are safely home, Michael told himself as he picked up his socket wrench and made another attempt on the rusty nut that stubbornly held the fuel pump in place.
Angie had called only once from Sydney to keep her promise of letting Nan know she'd arrived, but of course there'd been no word from Jemimah. Not that there ought to have been - after all she was back home with her family - but Michael hadn't been able to stop thinking about her for the last two weeks.
If only they'd had more time to talk before she’d left . . . it churned him up to think she might have returned home still unsettled after their discussions about God’s sovereignty in salvation. He’d thought he’d have more time with her on the Sunday, but it didn’t turn out that way, and she’d gone to bed before he’d even realised what was happening.
Within Jemimah there undoubtedly burned a flame of passion for God, yet it seemed to Michael to be in danger of flickering in the winds of doubt and difficulty. He wished he could cup his hands around it and make sure it burned strongly.
As he had so many times during the last two weeks, Michael lifted her up in prayer to the Lord. A bruised reed I will not break, and a smouldering wick I will not put out, he murmured, repeating God’s own words to Him, as much for reassurance for himself as intercession for Jemimah. He hated that things seemed to be so hard for her – and that by being compelled to share the truth of the Word with her, perhaps he’d made things even harder.
“And – you – just – won’t – give – in,” he muttered through gritted teeth at the recalcitrant nut that his resisted his best efforts. The old “paddock basher” hadn’t been off the property for years, but it was handy to drive about the farm with more bales of hay than the quadrunner could carry, and he was determined to get it running again.
Remembering the can of lubricant in the tool box, Michael began to inch out from under the vehicle to fetch it when he heard the distinctive whine of the Datsun's motor. He twisted his head quickly, and managed to catch sight of Jemimah’s car as it passed the open shed.
Two occupants, he noted, and his shoulders dropped back against the dirt in relief. He hadn't even admitted to himself that he was a little frightened Jemimah might have found it too painful to leave home again, and decide against coming back. Some people preferred to take the easier paths than strengthen their limbs to the hard work God was calling them to.
He didn't think Jemimah was like that. He hoped - no, he was sure - that she truly would give anything that God asked of her. She'd spent a full term, fully tasted life out here. And she'd come back, hadn't she?
Feeling lighter in heart than he had for a fortnight, Michael climbed to his feet and wiped the worst of the grease off onto the old flannel shirt he was using as a rag. The problems with the engine were already far from his thoughts as he strode toward the house.
Angie and Jemimah were settled on stools at the kitchen bar when he finally went in after scrubbing his hands in the laundry. Their backs were to him, and between them sat an open family-sized bag of chips and a large bottle of cola.
"... yes, Derek was there too, with a few of his friends, the connections the two of them have are just incredible. You know Craig Copeland from MET-TV, well, he --" Angie broke off as she saw Michael out of the corner of her eye. "This year's ball at the Winslow's is going to be the best ever! You should hear what they've already got lined up," she went on, barely taking a breath as she redirected her commentary in his direction.
"I see you both got home safely, then," he said dryly as he walked around to the opposite side of the bar. "Good trip?"
"Yes, thank you," Jemimah answered quietly. She glanced up, her eyes meeting his for the merest fraction of a second before she looked away. It was long enough though, for Michael to notice the dullness in those eyes that were usually alight with emotion. Was something wrong, or was she simply tired? Who wouldn't be after a day in Angie's company?
"Sonja's even got ‘Five Shades of Blue’ lined up to play for free - aren't they generous? The ball will definitely be a sell out with them on the ticket."
"I imagine the value of free publicity will more than compensate them," Michael said, pulling out a stool for himself. He reached out a hand toward the chips. "May I?"
"Oh, of course. I'm so sorry I didn't think to offer," Jemimah said, but as she held out the bag to Michael, Angie snatched it away.
"No way! Look at your hands! I don't want you touching anything I'm going to eat." She tipped out a small pile of chips onto the surface of the bar and put the bag back safely out of his reach.
Michael spread out his hands with a rueful laugh. “I did wash them, you know."
Angie shuddered dramatically. "Yuck. It's still all under your nails."
Jemimah had remained silent through the exchange, but when he looked at her, her cheeks turned pink and she stood hurriedly. "I'll get you a glass for some coke too."
"Worried my darling sister will snatch that away from me too? I certainly wouldn't put it past her – she probably expects that I’ll swig from the bottle given half a chance," he teased, but even that didn't draw a smile from Jemimah.
Something was wrong.
He waited while she poured another glass and then as she handed it to him, he touched her hand lightly. "You look a little low, Jemimah. I guess it was pretty tough having to come back again after being home."
Her eyes widened. "Oh no – it’s not being back here. Just being home again - I'd been looking forward to it so much - but everything felt different - I almost wish I’d --" she stopped the rush of words short as though she realised that she'd spoken unguardedly.
Michael nodded, remembering his first visit home after moving to Sydney. "You thought when you went home everything would be just the same as it had always been – but everything had changed and it feels like it like it will never be the same again? I guess that's when it sinks in that you've really left home."
Jemimah stared at him miserably for a moment and then, nodding as though it had finally made sense to her, burst into tears.
"Michael!" Angie hissed as Jemimah ran out of the kitchen. "She was perfectly fine until you stuck your big nose in!"
"What? You travelled all the way with her from Newcastle without any idea she was unhappy?" He felt Jemimah’s disappointment like a blow to his own stomach, but it was mixed with a sense of elation that she wasn't sorry to be back with them.
"She wasn't unhappy then!" she retorted.
"How would you know? I bet with your star-struck infatuation with Sonja's set you didn't even stop talking about your wonderful holiday long enough for Jemimah to slip a word in edgewise."
He saw that shot went home but after a moment Angie tilted her chin defiantly. "Jemimah wanted to know everything that I'd been doing. She said so herself."
"That's because she's not utterly self-centred like you are, Ange. Look, now you know poor Jemimah's upset, why don't you go and see if you can go and help her, rather than sitting here arguing with me. I can hardly go and--"
It was Michael's turn to blush with mortification as Jemimah's soft voice came from just behind him. He turned in his seat to look at her. Her eyes were red, but her face was freshly washed and she smiled bravely at both of them.
"I'm so sorry,” she spoke carefully, maintaining her smile with effort. “It's very kind for you to be concerned for me, but everything's really okay. I was glad Angie had so many interesting things to talk about - she's been on fashion shoots and everything with Sonja - and I thought if I didn't think about . . . things I wouldn't feel sad anymore." She shrugged, her forehead pinched as though she could frown away the tears that were welling in her eyes again. "But it doesn't really work for long, does it?"
She dabbed her eyes with a crumpled hanky, and frowned harder. "I'm sorry," she said glancing at Michael in embarrassment. "It must seem like I'm crying every time I see you. But honestly I'm not always like this."
Michael looked at his sister, thinking she would at least give her friend a hug, but Angie merely thrust her hand inside the packet for another chip and said drolly, "No, not always."
Michael felt like thumping her, but at least the comment had elicited a watery chuckle from Jemimah. Feeling awkward and a little at a loss for what to do next, Michael suggested he put on the kettle and make a cup of tea for everyone.
"Righto - Michael's solution to everything - a sweet cup of tea," Angie said, but Jemimah settled herself back onto her stool and smiled gratefully.
"Thank you, Michael - that would be perfect. And I'll try my best to maintain my composure from here on. I really am sorry about getting upset."
"Don't be," Michael said, getting up from his place to fill the kettle with water. "That's what friends are for. I think if something is bothering you it is far better to talk about it than pretend nothing's wrong - even if it makes you a bit emotional. Do you want to talk about what happened while you were back home?"
"What? You really want to make her cry again, don't you, Michael? Must be this male superiority thing or something."
This time Michael did thump his sister on the shoulder when he walked past on his way back to his seat. “Just because you don't have any feelings, Ange, doesn’t mean feminine sensitivity is a weakness.”
"No, not a weakness - just a liability!" she shot back. "Sometimes you've just got to get on with things."
Angie's cutting words made him wince for how they must make Jemimah feel, but before he could say anything to moderate them, Jemimah sighed and turned to Angie. "You're right. I'm not going to change anything by sulking about it. I suppose I'd better start trying to grow up a bit."
She stared down at the glass in front of her, slowly turning it around as though she could make it disappear with the intensity of her staring. Michael wondered what problem she was silently wishing away.
As though his thoughts had penetrated her consciousness, she looked up and met his eyes, colouring slightly. "Oh, it's nothing big. I mean, it is to me - but it shouldn't be. I should be happy about it. I wish I was."
Her hand jerked against the glass, sloshing a little of the cola onto the table. She put her hand over the spill as though she could pretend it wasn’t there.
Michael felt an almost imperative urge to put his hand over hers, to give some comfort or support while she struggled with whatever she was dealing with - but he couldn't. He could only wait.
Out of the corner of his eye he watched Angie, half expecting her to be totally oblivious to her friend, but she was observing her sharply, too.
"My parents are selling our - their - house," Jemimah said finally. "It's not settled or anything yet . . . but it will be in the next couple of months . . . "
"They're not! Without a word to--" Angie started in disgust.
"Well, there are some new units closer to the water and they'd like somewhere maintenance-free so they can travel more. Any how it's only the two of them at home," she hiccupped and continued on, "they don't need the big yard or all the space."
"Hmph! That's parents for you!" Angie said. "They just decided that out of the blue, without a single word, did they?"
"Nooo, not exactly I suppose. They'd always said that one day when they retired they'd like a smaller place, but I'd thought that was way off - like when they were grandparents or something." She winced and then sighed. "That's the other thing. Keren - my sister - is expecting a baby. Actually two babies - she's having twins."
"So you're going to be an aunty. What's wrong with that? I thought you of all people would be into babies and all that kind of stuff," Angie said.
Michael shot his sister a scorching look and said quickly, "There's nothing wrong, is there Jemimah? Is everything okay with your sister and the babies?"
Jemimah looked up guiltily. "Oh yes. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make it sound like that. They're doing fine - Keren had a DVD of the twins’ ultrasounds and everything. It's just . . . well she hadn't told me." She wiped a tear that had escaped from the corner of her eye.
"She's already over twelve weeks pregnant. They knew before I even moved here but they wanted to wait past the danger period before telling me . . . and then . . . they decided it would be more special waiting until they saw me in person rather than ring me on the phone." Jemimah drew the back of her hand across the other eye and smiled. "And I can see that . . . but it just hurt that I hadn't known. Mum has already been knitting things for the babies, and she and Keren have been out to buy things for the nursery, and I've missed all that. But it’s such good news, I'm really happy for them, it shouldn't make me feel sad."
"Hey, it wouldn't have been easy taking it in all at once as soon as you got home. Especially since the rest of your family have had months to get used to it." Aware his sister wasn't make the least move to encourage her, Michael reached out and squeezed Jemimah's hand. "And then to have them drop the news of the move onto of you as well."
Jemimah took a deep breath and straightened up as he released her hand. "They didn't mean it to happen like that. Mum and Dad had just started discussing it as a distant possibility one evening, and Mum suggested they ask a real estate agent out just to give them an idea how much their house might be worth - then it all seemed to happen overnight. The agent had a buyer who was after something exactly like our place, and the new units were just going on the market . . . they didn't even advertise." She shrugged, "I guess it's only right that they do what's best for them. After all, they see it as both their daughters having left home. But I hadn't seen it like that. I thought I was just . . . away . . . and that everything would still be waiting for me when I finally came home."
"I'm sorry," Michael said softly. "It's hard when things change so much."
Jemimah returned to her glass twisting, her tension finding escape through the incessant movement of her slender fingers. "But it's not just that . . . even with the house still there, it wasn't the same. It was like I didn't quite fit the same anymore. Maybe they've stayed the same but--"
"But you've changed?" Michael completed her thought.
She nodded. "Yes. And it didn't feel good. You know the things we were talking about before I left . . . and there’s been a lot of different issues I've been learning about this term. I just wanted to talk them through with Mum and Dad, with my pastor . . . but . . . " She paused, frowning. "It didn't go well. It was like they didn't really want to talk about it. It made me feel like I was saying something wrong, that I was trying to change things."
"Did you usually talk to your parents about spiritual things before you moved here?" Michael asked.
"I guess not. I don't think I thought about things as much before. I guess I was just happy with what I’d been told, even if I didn’t completely understand it or know where it was from in the Bible. And it’s not that I wanted to disagree with them, or challenge them or anything, but . . . ” Jemimah released her glass with a sigh, stretching her fingers out on the counter top and staring down at them. “I thought I would get it all sorted out while I was home, but I didn't.”
Michael leaned forward on his arms, bringing his eyes down to her level. “Are you still struggling with the Bible passages you and I were looking at before you left?”
Jemimah’s eyes flicked up toward him briefly, and she smiled apologetically. “I tried hard – really, I did. I went over and over the page you wrote out for me, and I read all through Romans, and even when it was all too much and I was trying to forget about it and just find something to read for comfort - I kept seeing it everywhere, in the Old Testament, in the Gospels--”
Angie shot her a disgusted look. "What? You didn’t spend the whole two weeks reading, did you?"
Jemimah shrugged. "Mum and Dad were working, so I had a lot of time to myself," she explained, "and I just wanted to somehow get it all untangled. How come I can see clearly in the Bible that God is in complete control over everything, that He alone chooses us - but at the same time so many verses seem to say the opposite? They were the things my Mum and my pastor brought up, but both ideas can’t be true."
She pressed her fingers to her eyes then ran her hands up through her hair, pushing her fringe back from her face. It was a gesture Michael had never seen her make before and it seemed to convey both extreme weariness and a determined resignation to battle on.
God is really testing her, he thought. She had a quiet, simple life and He's let her be all shaken up out of her comfort zone. Part of him wanted to figure out a way to take all the pressure off her, to tell her she really didn't need to worry about these things - but that would be to stop her growing, to stand against the work of the Holy Spirit in her life. Although it hurt to see her distressed, it made him glow inwardly to see how much she cared about discovering the truth; God was challenging her, pruning her and although the process was painful – it was producing new fruit.
''Do you want to talk through your questions? Maybe things aren't quite as complicated as you think."
She nodded almost fiercely. "Yes, please. If you don't mind."
Angie looked at her watch. "Were you going to drive out to the Winslow's with me, Jemimah? I don't want to end up there on tea-time. Nan's left my favourite casserole for us to reheat for dinner."
"You're planning to go there today?" Michael asked as Jemimah's shoulders sagged.
"Yes, Sonja's given me a whole lot of stuff to show her mother for the ball."
"It can't wait?"
"No!" Angie made it sound like his question was totally stupid. She got up from the stool. "You don't have to come, Mimie. But either way I’d better go now; Sonja told her mum I was coming straight over."
Michael watched the indecision pass across Jemimah’s face. He wanted to tell his sister to go on her own and not to drag Jemimah out again - for who knew how long - after an obviously long and draining day, but for once he held his peace.
"If you don't mind, Angie, I think I'd rather not go out again straight away, if that's okay. Actually, I wouldn't mind asking Michael about a couple of things if he has time." She glanced shyly toward Michael. "But - are you still in the middle of fixing something? I don't want to keep you from working on that.”
"It’s only the old paddock basher – but we can talk while I work," he suggested, disproportionately glad that she had said no to Angie and chosen to stay there. "If we can't have tea until Angie gets back from the Winslow’s, we should have a good few hours ahead of us."
Angie sent him a withering glance. "You could put the casserole in the oven yourself, you know – Nan’s left the instructions on the fridge. Then it will be piping hot when I get back."
Angie snatched her handbag from the dresser as she went out the door. In the vacuum of silence that followed her departure, Michael turned back to the kitchen to see Jemimah already wiping up the chip crumbs and glass rings.
She moved rather stiffly, her eyes fixed on the counter top and her eyebrows pinched together again in that tight frown. She must have felt the sting of Angie’s annoyance at her decision to stay – perhaps she was already regretting it.
Michael watched her for some minutes, uncharacteristically at a loss for words.
"I never did make that cup of tea that I offered you," he said finally.
Surprised out of whatever thoughts she was lost in, Jemimah looked up and laughed, a gentle tinkling sound that made Michael smile. "No, you didn't."
She still looked weary, but no longer as though she were on the losing side. Did knowing he would talk through her concerns with her give her hope?
The idea made him feel re-energised, and he moved quickly through to the kitchen. "I'll make it now."
Jemimah shook her head. "No, thank you - I had more than enough with the soft drink
"So you were just being polite about wanting tea when I asked before, were you?" he teased, glancing over his shoulder as he filled the kettle at the sink. "Or are you being polite now and not wanting to put me to the trouble?"
Her cheeks coloured prettily as she looked at him in helpless confusion for a few moments, and then he saw the smile reach her eyes.
“I always aim to be polite, thank you,” she said softly, side-stepping his question about the tea. “You go ahead, but if you’ll excuse me I think I'd better change into something a little more," she glanced down at her light coloured dress, "forgiving if I'm going to help you work on the car. I'll meet you out there."
She disappeared into the hallway, leaving Michael chuckling as he regarded his black rimmed fingernails.
Jemimah was going to help?
© R. L. Brown 2008