Oh, the new-chum went to the backblock run,
But he should have gone there last week.
He tramped ten miles with a loaded gun,
But of turkey or duck never a one,
For he should have been there last week.
From “Last Week” ~ Banjo Patterson
By late that Friday evening, Jemimah wished more than ever she had never made the commitment to go spotlighting the following night. How nice it would have been to look forward to a quiet Saturday.
It had been the hardest week of teaching she could remember, and she was bone weary from the continual battle for control and discipline. She'd never considered pulling out of the social night, a ‘board game challenge’ at the home of a family in town, but it felt like it would never wind up. Now it was over and she loaded a couple of board games into the boot of her car then handed the keys to Angie. She was happy to have Angie’s company, but couldn’t help hoping it wouldn’t be a late night.
The other door opened and Angie dumped herself into the driver’s seat. Jemimah barely had time to climb in and buckle her seat belt before Angie swung the car out from the kerb.
“I didn’t know you were going spotlighting with the Harts tomorrow night,” Angie complained, heading the car out of town towards Hart’s Desire. ”I didn't think you liked to go out late on Saturday nights. If you're that bored we could have at least gone to the movies at Narrabri. I never get to go now we're doing this social group every Friday night."
Jemimah’s stomach dropped. Angie had seemed to be enjoying the evening as much as everyone else. Where had this come from?
Then she remembered chatting to Jarrah before they left, telling her about her plans for the weekend. Angie must have overheard her talking about spotlighting.
Was Angie upset she hadn't been included?
"Do you want to come along, too? I'm sure the Hart boys would be happy--"
Angie snorted. "NOT on your life. I can't think of anything worse! Stupid red-neck country boys’ idea of fun: driving around a paddock in the dark, yahooing and trying find rabbits with their spotlights. You'd hate it."
So that's what spotlighting was. It certainly sounded like a tedious way to spend an evening, but at least Jemimah knew what she faced now. She shrugged and settled back in the passenger seat. It mightn’t be pleasant, but she’d survived worse with the Hart boys. "Oh, well. I promised Jamie. He thinks I'll enjoy it. It's something new, anyway. Maybe it will be fun to try."
"Hmph, I doubt it. And that movie I want to see will have finished its run before I ever get there.”
Jemimah sighed inwardly. She knew the movie Angie meant and had no great desire to see it. But if it were that important to Angie . . .
“What about next Saturday night?” Jemimah offered, the distant mirage of a quiet weekend evaporating even as she spoke.
“No good. I’ve got a residential school for uni next weekend so we can’t go then," said Angie. "If you'd just cancel the spotlighting we could still go tomorrow night. You know, Jemimah, you try too hard to keep other people happy. "
"Uh-huh." The darkness hid Jemimah’s rueful smile. She closed her eyes, and hoped Angie would get the hint she was too tired to argue any further. It would make both Angie and Jack happy if she pulled out - but for some perverse reason it made her all the more determined to go ahead.
That thin, wiry thread of determination was all that kept Jemimah going when she walked over to the Hart's house through a biting wind the following evening. Jamie's smile of sheer pleasure as he opened the door made her glad she hadn’t pulled out.
"Hey, everyone! Jemimah's here!" he shouted into the house and ushered her inside.
"Did she bring her knitting?" Jack's voice rumbled in reply from somewhere inside, but neither Jamie nor Mrs Hart, who'd come puffing into the hallway, paid any attention.
Mrs Hart enveloped her in a warm hug then stood back and looked at her critically. "Do you think she'll be warm enough, though?"
Jemimah glanced up at Jamie. She'd dressed in the old jeans that she'd worn to the truckie night and Nan had insisted she keep, and added a tracksuit top over her shirt, but the wind had cut straight through them on the walk over and she was already chilled.
"Nah, you want to rug up more than that. I'll find you something. Come on." Jamie ran down the hall toward his bedroom, and Jemimah excused herself from Mrs Hart and followed after him.
He met her at his bedroom door with a padded flannelette shirt and an old black beanie. While Jemimah stood in the hallway and put them over the top of her other clothes, he dived back into his wardrobe and produced a knitted football scarf and an old and disreputable duffle coat. "Too small for me now, but I reckon it'll fit you just fine."
By the time Jamie had looped the scarf around her neck, and helped her slide her already padded arms into the sleeves of the coat, she could hardly move.
"Jamie? I think perhaps I mightn't need the coat."
"Better wear it. You can always take it off later if you get too hot." He pulled a beanie over his hair, and reached down a tattered oilskin riding coat from a hook behind his door.
He shrugged himself into it and swept past her into the hallway, the tails of the knee length coat swinging out behind him and putting her in mind of a bushranger. "Come on through. Everyone's waiting in the kitchen."
The sound of good natured arguing coming from the kitchen reminded her of her first meal with the Harts, with all the boys gathered around the long table. No-one noticed as she waddled into the room behind Jamie, until Mrs Hart looked up and smiled.
"Oh, that's much better, lovey - you'll be nice and warm now."
Several heads turned her way at once, the conversation immediately silenced.
Jack spat his coffee as he gave an involuntary crack of laughter; David - whom she hadn't seen since before the beginning of term - stared at her open-mouthed, and from the twinkle in his eyes, even Ashley seemed to be laughing behind his hastily raised hand.
"Evening, Jemimah," said Ashley, a little unsteadily. "You seem to be all set."
"That's never the little school teacher who was here that Sunday!" David turned in astonishment to his brother, and then bent his head down as he shook with laughter thinly disguised as a coughing fit.
Jemimah glanced up at Jamie, for one horrified moment suspicious that he might have set her up. But he was smiling at her with benign pride. "Told you she'd come."
"That you did, Jamie boy," Jack answered, pushing away from the table. "And it's good to see Miss Sparky throwing herself into the spirit of it all. Let's grab the guns and go get on with it."
"The guns?" Jemimah's voice came out in a squeak as the rest of the Hart boys rose to their feet.
David laughed, and Jack clapped Jamie on the shoulder as he headed for the door. "You told her exactly what we were doing tonight, didn't you?"
"Yeah, course I did." Jamie shrugged off his brother's bear-like hand, and shot a worried glance at Jemimah. "She's not a chicken like you think, Jack."
"Yeah?" Jack propelled his littlest brother through the doorway, then paused to wink over his shoulder at Jemimah.
Jemimah stared after them, her heart pounding sickeningly, the pulse rushing past her ears sounding a primal alarm.
She glanced back into the kitchen, where Mrs Hart was singing to herself as she piled the empty cups into the sink.
Guns? No, Jack had to be teasing. He'd been setting her up all week to make her nervous, and now he thought he would scare her off with this silly joke. She was not going to fall for it this time.
"Bye, Mrs Hart," she called out, pushing her renewed determination into her voice. "See you when we get back."
With the sound of Mrs Hart's "Have a good time, love," ringing incongruously over the erratic beat in her ears, Jemimah stepped into the hallway just as Ashley entered from another doorway, a long-barrelled gun in his hand.
Jemimah froze. For the first time in her life she reckoned she knew how Lot's wife felt as she turned into a pillar of salt. She couldn't move, she couldn't speak, she could only watch helplessly as the other boys filtered back into the hall; Jamie and David each carrying a rifle and Jack with another gun and a metal box tucked under his arm.
She was still standing immobile by the door, when Mrs Hart came through to see them off, wiping her hands on a tea towel and peppering the boys with admonitions to "be careful", "don't drive too fast", "make sure Jemimah sits in the cab" and "for goodness sake, try to get the rabbits with the first shot or we'll be forever picking the pellets out of the stew like last time."
No-one seemed to be aware of Jemimah's condition except Jack, whose beard twitched every time he looked at her.
Ashley and David were already out on the verandah when Jack poked his littlest brother in the ribs. "You didn't tell her about the shooting?"
"Course I did. Told her we were going spotlighting."
"When you asked Jemimah to come spotlighting, did you tell her happen to tell her what spotlighting was?"
Jamie looked from Jack to Jemimah and then to his feet, his face going red. "Thought everyone knew what spotlighting was," he mumbled to the floor. "It's excellent fun. You don't have to come if you don't want to, though."
The numbness of the shock was beginning to wear off, and Jemimah could feel Jamie's mortification. Jack had surely been setting him up all week for this too; Jack had always known Jemimah could never do something like this.
Jack waited for her answer, his eyebrows raised in mockery. "Gunna stay home and do some knitting with Mum, are you, Sparky? She won't mind the feminine company."
Jamie was still staring at the ground, even his ears burning red. Although she'd had no idea he’d meant anything like this when she’d agreed to come, Jemimah felt like she'd let him down terribly.
It’s all my fault! Why didn't I ask what spotlighting was? Poor Jamie, I'm making him look like a fool in front of Jack. And I know how rotten that feels.
Somehow Jemimah managed to swing one stiff leg forward and stepped toward the door. "I said I was coming."
She felt her face would crack if she tried to smile, but her words were enough to make Jamie's smile light up like a beacon.
"I knew you would, Jemimah. Jack doesn't know what he's talking about." He clapped her vigorously on the back, almost shooting her through the doorway with his enthusiasm.
Jemimah didn't dare look back at Jack, but heard his surprised whistle as he pulled the front door shut behind them.
The very crunching of Jemimah’s footsteps on the gravel sounded strange through her buzzing ears, but she kept putting one foot in front of the other. It was like a scene from a B-rated Saturday afternoon movie as she followed the Hart boys through the dark, their long coats and wooden butted rifles making them look like a posse about to rob a bank.
She felt ill with worry. How could she even consider going through with something like this . . . but if Mr and Mrs Hart hadn't thought there was anything wrong with it . . .
She had to walk fast to keep up with Jamie's long strides and they reached the old ute, unpleasantly familiar from her driving lessons, far too soon.
Ashley and David were already at the back of the ute. David had climbed up on the tray and Ashley handed two rifles to him. Jamie scrambled up beside his brother as Jemimah moved toward the passenger door. It hadn't occurred to her that anyone would be riding in the tray - she knew that was illegal - but since there were five of them going in a three-seater ute, she guessed it must be the plan. Maybe they weren’t going on any public roads. She shrugged her shoulders - she knew better than to try to lecture Jack - and headed toward the passenger door.
"Where do you think you're going, Sparky?" Jack's paw clamped down on her shoulder turning her around. "You’re up the back with the other kids."
He's joking, Jemimah told herself although far from convinced. "But there's three seats inside . . . There's room for me . . ."
He laughed and propelled her firmly toward the back of the vehicle. "Uh-uh, little one. You want to come spotlighting, you're going to have the full experience."
Before she could protest further, he swung her off her feet and dumped her unceremoniously into the tray. Jamie turned around in surprise.
"But Mum said for Jemimah to ride inside!"
"Hmph? I don't remember hearing that - you must be imagining things, Jamie boy." He slammed the tailgate firmly shut.
"But Mum will --".
"Not if someone doesn't run whinging to Mummy." The tacit threat behind his tone quelled Jamie's protest, and he ducked his head and busied himself with the rifles beside him.
So much for thinking Mrs Hart's approval gave the expedition some form of protection, thought Jemimah, trying to catch her breath. What had made her think that Jack would be sticking to his mother's boundaries? Oh, why hadn't she swallowed her pride in the first place and asked exactly what Jamie had in mind?
"Make yourself useful, Sparky. You can take care of this for me."
Jemimah looked up at Jack just in time to see him flip his rifle toward her. She recoiled, flinging up her hands as it landed as though he'd thrown a snake into her lap. Jack laughed. "You'll be right, Sparky. Just don't touch the trigger, okay?"
He turned on his heel, leaving Jemimah staring at the gun in horror.
Before this evening, she'd never been this close to a gun. They repulsed and terrified her and apart from the partial glimpses of holstered police pistols, she’d never seen one in real life. As soon as the guns entered the scene she’d felt trapped in a nightmare she couldn’t wake from - now she was terrified she’d accidentally kill someone.
David sighed wearily beside her. "You can stop looking at it like its going to explode if you breathe. It's not loaded."
"Are you sure?" Jemimah whispered back.
"Of course. Jack might be a pain in the neck, but he's not an idiot. See for yourself." He snatched the gun from her lap and cracked it open, showing her the empty barrel. "The ammo's up the front in a metal box. We'd never carry 'em loaded."
He shook his head as though disgusted by her naivety and tossed it back into her lap.
"All set?" Jack called out, and remembering the trip home from her first driving lesson riding in the tray of the ute, Jemimah hastily grabbed the roll bar. Jack stuck his face round to see her and winked.
"Enjoy the space while you've got it, kids. If we shoot a bear you're going to be cramped for space on the way home."
"A bear?" Jemimah called incredulously toward his retreating back. He had to be joking this time, or the nightmare was getting even weirder. Not even Jack could think she was dumb enough to believe there were bears in Australia.
"No - a boar. B-O-A-R. You know, a razorback." David's scorn showed as she stared at him uncomprehendingly. "A feral pig. Some of them are huge, tusks like an elephant. Wouldn’t want to be out of the ute if one of them was charging.” He shook his head as if disappointed. “Not much chance we’ll get a shot at a razorback, though. Probably just rabbits or maybe a feral goat if we’re lucky."
Jemimah drew up her knees reflexively, revolted by the thought of . . . of dead things. This couldn't be happening!
The ute took off with a jerk and she closed her eyes in horror as they roared straight out of the driveway onto the road. Now she knew that not only was she doing something dumb - riding in the back of the ute - she was doing something very illegal.
She'd never broken the law in her life, not even so much as forgetting to wear her seatbelt - and here she was, bouncing on the open tray of the ute like a pea in a hot pan along a public road. Why? Because she didn't want anyone to look down on her for backing out of her commitment.
The icy fear she'd felt when she’d seen the guns now exploded into a sickening heatwave of guilt.
O Lord, what should I do?
She knew she'd done wrong by committing herself without asking enough questions or taking proper responsibility - but how could she fix it now? Even if she banged on the window she doubted Jack would stop. And even if he did stop, why did she think she’d have any greater success getting her own way than before they left?
Jemimah put her head down on her knees, trying to figure out a plan of survival
"You okay, Jemimah?"
Jemimah opened her eyes in answer to Jamie's plaintive question and managed a wan smile. It wasn’t really his fault, and if there was nothing she could do right now to alter her circumstances, she ought to make the best of it for his sake.
Fortunately it was too noisy for conversation, and he seemed satisfied with her nod.
Inwardly she returned her attention to plotting her strategy. Ashley was the sensible one, and out of any of them, the most likely to have any influence over Jack. When they stopped, if she could get Ashley to one side . . .
Bright lights from an oncoming car lit the tray through the back window of the cabin, then flashed passed. Moments later, the white sedan spun round in a neat u-turn and, moving at speed, rapidly caught up behind them.
Jemimah released one hand from the roll-bar to shield her eyes from the bright lights, but not before she caught the glimpse of blue lights on the roof.
A police car!
Dear God, please help me! she prayed, without even a notion of what God could do to extricate her from this terrible situation. She'd be arrested, lose her job . . . never be able to teach again! She'd be sent home from The Plains and never see any of her friends again. Michael Turnbull's face flashed into her mind. He was such a good man - he'd be horrified to think of her being involved in something like this. If only she'd listened to Angie's advice and pulled out.
The ute slowed and stopped in the middle of the road, the police car pulling up abreast. Jemimah dropped her head to her knees, unable to bear what must be coming.
"G'day Jack, - didn't recognise the vehicle," the policeman's voice boomed clearly in the quiet night air. Jemimah’s despair deepened. It was the sergeant who’d visited the students at school last term. This would be the last thing he’d expect of the new teacher.
"G'day Sgt Beavan. Yeah, we're heading out to Cox's to do a bit of shooting in their bottom paddock - no way I'm taking my vehicle out there."
"What are you going after?"
"They've got a feral goat population taken up residence, but if we see any rabbits or foxes we'll take a shot at them too."
"Not going after any roos, though?" The sergeant’s question was unmistakably a statement.
'Nah, mate - we know the drill. Too much fuss for the licences. Just the ferals."
"Good luck, then. Of course I haven't seen your brothers on the back but," Sgt Beavan paused, and Jemimah's heart stopped. She stared down at her feet, sure the policeman was looking directly at her. "But who's the young bloke in there with them?"
"Friend of mum's from the city," Jack replied without the slightest hesitation, "thought we'd show'm a bit of country life."
"Yeah. Better get him to ride in the cabin though, mate, just in case."
Jemimah heard the passenger door open and then Ashley's voice, wobbly with barely suppressed laughter. "Come on, young fella, you heard the copper - inside you go."
Her head deep inside the upturned collar of the oilskin coat, Jemimah climbed over the side of the tray furthest from the policeman and slid past Ashley into the centre of the bench seat. She fumbled over her seatbelt, appreciating as she did so the inconsistency of worrying about a seat belt after riding on the tray.
But God had given her a second chance - somehow, miraculously, the policeman hadn't recognised her - and now she seemed to have escaped she wasn’t going to take any more liberties with the law.
"See you later, Sergeant!" Jack called out as he drove off, only just managing to get his window wound up before he and Ashley lost their struggle against hysterical laughter.
"And he still has no idea that the young fella on the back was none other than the new little teacher!" Jack wiped his streaming eyes. "Can you imagine how he'll laugh when he finds out?"
Jemimah clutched his arm. Was her reprieve to be only temporary?
"No - please don't tell him! Don't tell anyone, please! I don't want anyone to know that I've done this."
"What? You want me to give up the best story I've had since you and Angie went chasing cattle thieves?" Jack rubbed his beard and sighed noisily. "I guess I could keep it under my hat, but it would cost you."
"Don't forget the rest of us," Ashley cut in. "You'd have to pay off all four of us."
Jemimah's heart sank. She knew they were still enjoying the joke, but if what they were suggesting was blackmail . . . even if it was only a token amount of money she couldn’t keep on adding to her list of wrongs. There was nothing she could do to stop them spreading the story of her reckless behaviour around the town.
"Yeah, you're right there, Ash. Four of us to buy silence from. Got any ideas?"
"I do actually. Did you get to taste any of those chocolate éclairs that Jemimah made for church supper toward the end of last term? You know, I've been longing for more of those ever since."
Jack nodded in agreement. "I do. Half a one each just wasn’t enough. There’s one thing Jemimah's got going for her, and that's her cooking. I reckon a couple of those for each of us and we might be persuaded to hold our tongues."
"No, no, no - it would take at least three for me to keep quiet," Ashley said, thoroughly enjoying himself. ''With extra thick chocolate on top."
Jemimah weakened. . . after all, she justified herself, you could hardly class baking as blackmail. It was a lot of work, but it would be worth it if no-one would find out about tonight. "Sure - I could do that."
"It's a deal then. I heard mum say you were coming for lunch tomorrow - sounds like that would be a perfect dessert.”
"But - but they take hours to make! What about next week?"
Jack shook his head. "Nah. If we're not paid off within twenty-four hours I don't think we could possibly keep a story like this to ourselves. Little Jemimah Parker, hooning along the road in the back of a ute, deceiving the police with a false identity--"
"Okay, okay, I'll do it," Jemimah snapped, already calculating the time it would take and trying to work out the logistics. She'd need to have them ready before church, so she'd have to get up early enough to ice them which meant she'd have to prepare the pastry and bake them tonight and let them cool overnight . . .
More than ever she wished the horrible nightmare of the evening was already over. Not only did she have several hours work between her and bedtime, she could hardly bear the thought of what was yet to come. With threats of wild boar and feral goats and the slaying of defenceless foxes and bunnies, the evening could only get worse.
"See? I bet you're glad you came after all, aren't you Jemimah?" Jamie asked ingenuously as they rattled over the Cox's paddock on the way home, obviously thrilled with Ashley's offer to trade places for the return drive. "I know we didn't actually shoot anything, but it was still fun giving chase, wasn’t it?"
On the other side of her Jack guffawed loudly. "Yeah, Jamie boy, she loved every minute of it. It was all Ashley and I could do to keep her from getting back out onto the tray with you and Davo to man the spotlights."
In reality, once safely ensconced in the centre seat of the ute, Jemimah had refused to budge, and no amount of teasing from Jack or Ashley had been able to shift her. Then she'd had to bear their accusations that every time they'd taken a shot and she'd put her fingers in her ears and closed her eyes, she’d been praying that they'd miss.
That part had been completely true, and Jemimah felt she had never been so thankful to God for answered prayers as she had been than night. Now it was finally over, the horrendously loud report of the guns was silenced, the ammo had been stowed away and the guns put out of her sight in the tray – and somehow she'd survived the horrible ordeal. And amazingly, it had never occurred to Jamie that she had not enjoyed it every bit as much as he had.
Jemimah was grateful for the dark cabin, and managed to make her voice sound neutral. "It was really sweet of you to invite me, Jamie. It's something I never imagined I'd have the chance to do."
Her carefully chosen words were not wasted on Jack, and he dug her in the ribs with his elbow, but surprisingly didn't say anything else. Perhaps he felt he’d be exacting his pound of flesh with the promise of tomorrow's homemade éclairs.
Jemimah already regretted her promise, it was well after eleven and they weren't even home yet - but she was determined to keep her word. It wasn’t so much out of fear of exposure anymore, but a need to prove that she did play fair.
By the early hours of the morning though, playing fair in the eyes of the Hart boys seemed like a singularly stupid motivation for staying up. Jemimah was so tired she couldn't walk straight, let alone see straight - and when the éclairs were finally out of the oven and cooling on the bench she didn't even make it through to her bed, but dropped onto the old couch in the living room. She didn't move until she woke with a start a few hours later when she dreamed she was back in the tray of the ute, and she suffered through several anxious minutes before she could figure out where she was and make her way through to her bedroom. By then the sleep she so desperately needed eluded her as her self-recriminations increased in severity in the lonely pre-dawn darkness.
It seemed she'd only closed her eyes again when the alarm went off. She knew she'd be useless for church unless she had at least another hour’s sleep, but the éclairs had to be iced and the filling made, so she forced herself out of bed to finish the job. After what she'd put herself through to get the baking done, it would be self-betrayal not to complete them and present her payment in full.
However, during the morning service as her eyes rolled of their own accord as she struggled to focus on the words in her Bible, she wondered how she could ever have thought missing sleep to finish the éclairs was anything but an incredibly dumb idea.
Like Angie had reminded her, she always tried to keep Saturday nights quiet and early so she could truly worship God with a clear mind - and now she was struggling to even stay upright in church.
She was so tired she felt dizzy, her whole body cried out for her to close her eyes just for a moment - but Jemimah battled the temptation. She watched the floor in front of her swim as she tried to pay attention, Pastor Turnbull’s sermon becoming little more than a bassy buzz in the background. Suddenly she was back in the ute, there was the loud report of a gunshot, and she jumped in her seat. Instantly Jemimah was wide awake and realised with mortification that the bang had been the sound of her Bible hitting the floor.
Angie gave her a strange look and retrieved the Bible. Jemimah felt her face burning like fire as she took it back from her, and tried to find her place.
Too embarrassed to look up, she poured all her concentration into Pastor Turnbull's words. Her eyes were heavy again within moments, but at least she was still following every word he said . . . until she slowly, icily became aware of the silence. Perhaps he was just pausing to look up a Bible reference?
Jemimah tried to open her eyes, but they seemed stuck. Her heart thumped louder as the silence continued, and with a mighty act of will her eyelids finally lifted and she looked up - straight into the smiling eyes of Pastor Turnbull. His lips curved in a brief smile and then he continued smoothly onwards with his sermon, leaving Jemimah sitting rigid in her seat - flushing alternatively hot and cold with horror.
How long had he been waiting for? The silence had stretched for an eternity . . . surely everyone in the church must have realised she'd fallen asleep.
Pastor Turnbull's pause had affected her as though someone had dumped a bucket of iced water over her head - she was utterly and completely awake now.
She stared unblinkingly at him, miserably ashamed. God had provided her with a loving Pastor, who laboured all week to teach her from God's Word - and she'd wasted it, thrown the opportunity away because she'd cared more about what the Hart boys thought of her. Was that how little she valued the word of God? Did she so despise the means of grace that God had given her?
To think she'd so desperately wanted Jarrah to come along to church with her too - the relief she felt that she hadn't come after all only made her feel more ashamed. Jemimah blinked away the tears, glad when the sermon finally ended and she could blow her nose as the closing hymn was sung.
Angie was on her feet soon after the benediction and keen to head straight out, but Jemimah remained in her seat, telling her friend she'd meet her outside. She waited until everyone else had gathered their things, and hung back until Pastor Turnbull had shaken hands with the last member of the congregation on his way out of the door.
He saw Jemimah coming, and greeted her with a warm smile. "Bit of a struggle this morning, was it, lassie?"
Overcome with remorse, Jemimah burst into tears. "I'm so sorry, Pastor Turnbull. I'll never let it happen again, I--"
He put a calming hand on her shoulder as if to stop her, but Jemimah felt so guilty that she wanted to get everything off her chest that she continued on, "I was stupid, I agreed to go out last night, and it was late when we got back home and--"
Pastor Turnbull clamped his free hand on her other shoulder and stooped to look her in the eyes.
"Everything's okay, Jemimah. Don't be so hard on yourself."
She nodded tearily, but would not let her confession be derailed so easily. He didn't know the half of it.
"And I went out in the back of the ute --"
"Ahh, Angie told me the Hart's were taking you spotlighting. Must have been quite an adventure. Did they shoot anything?"
Jemimah shook her head. He was making it all sound quite commonplace, but still . . . "and so they wouldn’t tell anyone I promised to make the Hart boys chocolate éclairs for today even though it was so late . . ." as soon as the words were out of her mouth she realised that it didn't sound exactly as bad as it had in her own mind.
Pastor Turnbull shook his head slowly, and said, "Dear me, the wanton extravagances of today's youth. Up all hours on a Saturday night baking."
He said it so sombrely that Jemimah couldn't help but giggle, and it turned into a watery hiccup.
"Now that's better," Pastor Turnbull released her shoulders and straightened up. "You need to ease up on yourself, little lassie. It's not exactly apostasy to fall asleep in the sermon once in a blue moon, now is it?"
She shook her head gratefully, and blew her nose. "No, but it wasn’t a wise choice either."
Pastor Turnbull nodded. "If you believe you have sinned, you have an advocate with the Father, who will forgive you . Then stop beating yourself up and get on with doing the right things - don't let the accusations of the Devil keep you from being useful in Christ because of your sensitivity to your failings - or perceived failings. Remember: “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” .
"Yes. Thank you for reminding me."
Jemimah realised that the way Pastor Turnbull was standing had blocked the doorway from the sight of the people still talking on the steps, giving her the privacy she needed to pull herself back together. She could have hugged him for his kindness, but instead, turned and blew her nose again.
When she was ready, he stepped aside to let her pass, but just as Jemimah stepped out into the sunshine, he called her back.
"Oh, one more thing. If you're up to it after the service tonight, I was thinking it might be a good time during supper to find a quiet corner for you and me to have a chat with the church council about your coming into membership. Does that suit?"
Jemimah nodded, her heart lifting. He still wanted to welcome her into the church - and if she met with the other church officers during supper it would be so much less formal than a separate meeting sometime during the week. She'd been praying about joining the church, and felt convinced she should formally commit herself to the partnership she already felt, but had still found the thought of a meeting with the church leadership unpleasantly daunting.
Now, Pastor Turnbull had organised it in a way that would be low-key - although she would have to make sure she had a decent sleep this afternoon first. For once the Harts would just have to let her eat and run.
She ducked around the side of the church closest to where her car was parked, and caught Angie's eye, signalling that she going to head straight home. Angie frowned at her, and met her as she walked toward the car.
Angie looked pointedly at Jemimah's red eyes. "Was my Dad bawling you out about falling asleep in church?" she asked, clearly annoyed with him.
Jemimah shook her head, smiling. "No - quite the opposite. Your Dad's just wonderful, Angie.”
She left her friend staring after her as though she were mad, and headed off to her car.
Thanks to Pastor Turnbull's encouragement, Jemimah was better able to deal with her self-recrimination, but her tiredness kept her quiet throughout the busy meal at the Hart’s. The last thing she wanted was to be drawn into any discussion about the previous night’s events. She was grateful to be seated at the far end of the table beside Gabi, and was largely forgotten by Jack until Mrs Hart rose to fetch ice cream for dessert.
"Never mind the ice-cream today, Mum," he called across the table. "Jemimah has made something special for dessert. At least I hope she has." He fixed his gaze on Jemimah, a look in his eyes which clearly conveyed the unspoken message, "If she knows what's good for her."
Jemimah nodded, her cheeks growing warm. She excused herself then returned to the table with the large container of éclairs that she'd filled with cream as soon as she'd returned from church.
She handed them to Mrs Hart who exclaimed loudly over them, and said, "You're a darling, but you really shouldn't have gone to so much trouble."
"Oh, yes she should have," Jack replied in an undervoice, but his mother's accusing glare made it obvious she'd heard. He made his face bland and continued, "I believe Jemimah felt - um - indebted - to us after taking her spotlighting last night."
Perhaps it was the intoxicating effects of extreme tiredness, but Jemimah began to see the ridiculousness of the whole situation. "Yes. When I got home I felt quite compelled to make the éclairs for them."
"That's lovely, dear," Mrs Hart said, looking around the table in consternation as her sons began to shake with laughter. "I think perhaps the boys don't appreciate you making such an effort for them."
"Oh, we do. I assure you." Ashley wiped his hand across his eyes. "We're very mindful of what her gift represents."
His comment provoked another round of laughter and meaningful glances among the boys, and Jemimah was glad when they began to eat.
Feeling the relief of having gotten past the worst of it, another wave of tiredness engulfed Jemimah. She tried to smother her yawn, but didn't manage to conceal it from Mrs Hart's eagle eyes.
"Oh, poor darling - you look exhausted."
Jemimah nodded, aware of Jack’s gaze along the table and answered for his benefit. "Yes - I couldn't get to sleep for several hours after we got back."
"Must have been all the excitement of the evening. Well, at least you made good use of your insomnia doing some baking - no point lying in bed if you can't sleep."
"Yes, something like that," Jemimah bit her lip in an attempt not to grin as Jack choked on his mouthful. "But, if you'll excuse me this once, I think I'd better head straight home for nap before church this evening."
Jemimah rose and gently pushed her chair back under the table, and Mr Hart looked at her keenly from the end of the table. "Did the boys give you a turn of a gun last night?"
Jemimah felt the colour drain from her face at the memory of those horrid rifles. Jack had certainly offered, but she'd been adamant in her refusal to even touch one of the weapons.
"Well, um, they did offer. But . . . I didn't want . . ."
"She wouldn't go near 'em, Dad. Refused outright," Jack supplied bluntly.
Mr Hart's eyebrows rose. "Gotta know what you're about with guns if you're out here in the bush. Otherwise, you'll find yourself in an emergency and do something stupid." He turned to his youngest son. "Jack’s a bit busy with the picking at the moment, but Jamie'll be able to spare you some time – and he's done okay teaching you to crack a whip. Get him to show you how to safely load and shoot one of the shotguns. He's a sensible boy, and living out here alone you never know when you'll need to use one. You might look into getting a licence and your own rifle at some point."
Jemimah nodded mutely. Mr Hart said so little, that when he did speak it carried something of the weight of a royal pronouncement. She made her escape down the hallway, feeling she could only be glad he hadn't suggested Jack as her tutor.
She knew she’d have a far better chance of talking Jamie out of it.
© R. L. Brown 2010