Deirdre got in the door at Lauren’s, through her hat on the dresser and flopped down on a kitchen chair.
“Oh, Lauren,” she said “I’m simply exhausted.”
“I’m not surprised,” replied Lauren Higginsbottom, as she bustled around her kitchen, doing a final tidy up. Dinner was ready but she liked a clean kitchen before they gave thanks.
“Your work with Doc Mason is taking you all over. Why you must know nearly everything he can teach you. Doesn’t leave you much time for relaxing.”
Deirdre knew this was Lauren’s way of saying that she hadn’t been much help around the house and that Jumbly was probably missing her company. She was missing his company too. He had his own work to keep him busy and they just had not managed to find much time together.
“I’m sorry, Lauren. Here I’ll wash up. Just the thing, my hands are quite chilled.”
Lauren smiled and began laying the table as Deirdre plunged her hands into the hot water. Ooh, so nice. She really had walked miles and miles with Doc Mason today. Deirdre began telling Lauren about the injuries they had treated and what she had learnt. Lauren was a little squeamish and only listened with half an ear until Deirdre mentioned the Blackfellas.
“Goodness, did Doc Mason take you all the way out to the camp. You want to be careful going out there, you never know what you might find. Always cover up and make sure your stockings are well tucked into your boots.”
Deirdre had turned open-mouthed towards Lauren, wondering what she was leading to.
“Snakes, dear, and spiders. Leeches and bull ants. All nasty biters, can’t be too safe.”
Deirdre nodded and was about to respond when she noticed that the table was set for three. She felt a flutter of excitement. “Is Jumbly coming for tea?’ she asked.
Lauren smiled at her, “I wondered when you’d notice. Yes, he is. All excited and everything. Bet he spruces himself up,” nodding at Deirdre’s dusty clothing. Deirdre laughed. You could always rely on Lauren for her subtlety or rather lack of it. Finishing the dishes, Deirdre gave Lauren a rather soapy hug on her way upstairs to clean up.
Jumbly! How she had missed him. She hadn’t seen him since Sunday Meeting for Worship and here it was Friday already. Goodness, by the time she was up and gone after chores in the morning and off to Doc Mason’s, out with that lovely old gentleman all day, it was night before they were back and she was exhausted. Deirdre dearly wished to spend more time with Adam but the Doc really needed her. He was their only medical man for miles and miles around and he wasn’t young. What to do? Oh, Jumbly! She was so looking forward to seeing him.
Lauren was putting the food on the table, ready for serving, when there was a knock on the door. She opened it to find Jumbly taking off his boots before stepping into the kitchen.
“Jumbly! It’s so lovely to see you. Come in. Come in.” He did and scooped Lauren up in a big hug that made her blush with pleasure and fuss to be put down.
“Jumbly! Jumbly! I’ve missed you!” Deirdre came flying down the stairs and leapt in an unseemly display into Jumbly’s arms. Jumbly laughed, gathered her up and gave her a resounding kiss on her cheek.
“Well! Really! Come on, you two, we can’t let dinner get cold.” Lauren wasn’t offended by their enthusiasm in the least, just a trifle overwhelmed. Laughing, they all sat down and enjoyed a delicious roast followed by crumbly apple pie with fresh cream. When they were full to the brim, Lauren shooed them off to the sitting room while she cleaned up and made a pot of tea.
Deirdre felt suddenly shy. She and Jumbly walked into the sitting room and sat on the chairs near the fire. It wasn’t quite cold enough for a fire but Lauren loved the flames and enjoyed nodding off in front of it.
Jumbly looked at Deirdre sitting suddenly all lady like in her chair and tilted his head at her, quizzically.
“Oh, I know, Jumbly. It’s just that we hardly get to see one another and then I feel so strange. I just want to hug you and hug you and I know it’s not really proper, for all Lauren is an easy chaperone.”
Jumbly looked quite pleased at the idea of being hugged and hugged. His eyes twinkled and his smile curled into his beard. Throwing a surreptitious glance to the hallway, he gave Deirdre a truly wicked grin and patted his knee, eyebrows raised in expectation. Deirdre laughed, all awkwardness forgotten, and jumped onto Jumbly’s knee for a cuddle. Jumbly sighed and smiled at her. Such lovely brown eyes he had. Deirdre gazed deeply. Jumbly was caught by her green gaze and her hair tumbling out of it’s knot and curling around her face and gave her an extra squeeze. Deirdre could feel herself falling into him. She did so love this man. Jumbly’s eyes dropped to her lips and she nervously moistened them with her tongue. His eyes flicked back to hers, darkening with.. Deirdre had no idea but she felt the excitement in herself. She leaned forward, eyes now on Jumbly’s mouth.
Deirdre jumped guiltily from Jumbly’s lap then turned her glare on him as he rumbled a chuckle. Lauren was smiling too. Was there no decorum to be had? Deirdre heard herself and snickered which set them all off.
“No-one minds here, Deirdre. We are only too glad to see our Jumbly loving and being loved in return and you deserve Adam, we all love him and you. All you two have to decide is when to announce the banns.” Lauren and subtlety had little acquaintance.
Deirdre’s cheeks reddened. She lowered her eyes then looked up through her lashes at her Jumbly Man. He grinned at her, his smiled curling through his beard until it was wide enough for him to laugh. He raised his eyebrow and gestured palm up to Deirdre.
“Oh. Why? Why do I have to decide? Why can’t we go on as we have been? Only we hardly get to see one another and I can’t cuddle him in public and …oh.” Understanding dawned. If they were married, she’d see him every morning and every night and all night long if she wanted to stay awake and…look at him in …their …bed. Suddenly shy again, Deirdre bit her lip and swung her gaze to Lauren to see if she had read her mind, cheeks aflame. Lauren stood there, looking all pleased with herself, glancing at Jumbly and back at Deirdre. Deirdre swung back to look at Jumbly. He grinned again and raised eyebrow and hand once more. Drat that expressive face! How could she decide?
Lauren laughed and taking pity on her, led Deirdre to an arm chair.
“It’s winter now. If the Elders announce it at Meeting for Worship on Sunday, you could get married in the spring.”
Eyes wide, Deirdre looked at Jumbly, whose eyes had widened too. This was a big step but, but, “Let’s do it!”, she declared, startling everyone, herself included. That emphatically decided, they all settled down around the fire and enjoyed their tea and cake.
Deirdre was up early for her rounds with Doc Mason after a restless night trying to imagine being married. Her excitement would peak in a rush of panic and she would be left staring into the dark wondering how she would ever get to sleep. No time to sleep now, she had a hurried breakfast and left as the sun was rising. Today they were back out to the Blackfella camp down along the river. One of the men had a spear injury. No-one would say how he had come by it and Deirdre didn’t want to pry. When Doc had asked they all looked away and changed the subject. It was Men’s Business though and Doc would attend to him. The women had offered to take Deirdre out and show her bush medicine. She was very excited. She liked the Blackfellas and their little fellas, smiling with with wide mouths and white teeth. Hmm, that was something else. How was it their teeth were so good? No tooth brushes so they must have some other way to keep their teeth strong and healthy. So much to learn. Despite her restless night, Deirdre was excited. She chatted away to Doc as they trudged out to the settlement of stone huts. He grunted in response. He had many years on Deirdre and had long since run out of enthusiasm for early mornings. Still her energy lifted his spirits and they hadn’t far to walk.
Doc Mason had a long history with the Blackfellas and knew many of the family groupings that travelled through the area, along the river to the lands in the west, good kangaroo hunting grounds. This wasn’t a main gathering place but he had been there too. Invited as if he were one of the clever men and women. Blackfellas had Elders too. He knew their names and tried his best to use the words in their language he understood. Pyemarriner. He couldn’t quite get the pronunciation correct but they really enjoyed his efforts. They had more English than he had their language, which he felt quite ashamed about. He was doing his best to get their language down, so they didn’t lose it. He knew Whitefella (as they called him) history and the scientist and storyteller in him dreaded the loss. Still, he did what he could. Shared his knowledge and learned theirs.
The Pyemarriner mob were a generous people and those who treated fairly with them received like in return. They hadn’t met with much generosity from the Whitefella’s settling their Country and mourned the loss of their connection to the land taken up by more and more settlers. The village that housed the Doc was well thought of. No poisoned flour there and they honoured their Elders too. Those Whitefellas took their responsibilities seriously and the Pyemarriner could understand that. They travelled the lines from the coast to the plains, following old traditions and were always glad to see Doc. They were most entertained that he had the young woman as his apprentice. They understood passing on the learning and responsibility. She was young and full of enthusiasm. They laughed when talking about her. They had heard she was to be married to Jumbly Man, who was a great friend to them and always shared whatever he had. They thought they were a good match and had embarrassed Deirdre more than once enquiring.
This morning though, they were delighted to hear that they were going to marry in a short time. When they discovered that the wedding may fall during the season of big winds they tried to convince her to marry sooner. Deirdre didn’t understand. The women laughed and took her off to the bush and let Doc tend the wounded warrior. They’d let the men explain it to Jumbly.
Deirdre had a wonderful day, full of amazement. The women acted out the various uses the plants were put to amidst much laughter. Deirdre wrote it all down as best as she could. Between the little she knew of their language and the little they knew of hers, they managed remarkably well. She would check it with the next group to come though and compare her notes with what she had been told by others in the meantime. There was an Elder in the next family who took her responsibilities to Deirdre very seriously and would test her. Deirdre loved Aunty and saw her much as the mother she lost long ago.
As Deirdre, the women and children were returning to camp, a great shout went up. The women dropped the bags made of grasses they were carrying, full of gathered tucker, and ran back to the camp. What impressed Deirdre was how silent they were. She tried to be as quiet, as they ran swiftly, then dropped and crawled through the bushes on the outer edges of the camp. Hidden behind tall grasses and bushes, Deirdre saw to her horror a group of white men gathered around the campfire. The tribal men had rope from one neck to another, sitting on the ground away from the men but facing the fire. All weaponry was piled together on the opposite side, up against some bushes, just to the right of where the women and children were hiding. Behind the men diagonally opposite the women’s and children’s position were the horses, lightly tethered. The white men were laughing and eating the wallaby the warriors had hunted and cooked in the pit, bringing it up for the women’s and children’s return. Deirdre cast about and saw, lying near the pit, Doc Mason, his head bleeding. She held her breath to stop any sound and watched carefully until she saw his chest move.
A tiny movement to her right caught her eye as a spear was dragged stealthily though the bushes. Deirdre turned to see one of the women grinning fiercely at her. She motioned the children to creep around to the horses and let them go as quietly as possible. The woman nodded and signalled some of the women and children around to the horses. Deirdre looked again. Pointing to the men, she mimed with her hands moving around the camp and letting them go one by one. The woman nodded and several women and older children left silently. Deirdre had to get to Doc to make sure he was alright but she needed to make sure the men and weapons went first.
Deirdre knew men like this. This was the type of criminal who had killed her father in front of her and taken her for their own use. She had been beaten and raped repeatedly. Dazed she had finally managed her escape only to run lost in the bush until she stumbled upon Jumbly. Jumbly! She caught her co-conspirator’s eye once more and signalled someone fetching her Jumbly Man. The word passed and another older child disappeared without sound. Deirdre couldn’t spend time now thinking about what those men did to her. She knew it would catch up with her later but now she needed to focus.
Looking back at the campsite she saw the white men were now passing bottles of alcohol and had become noisier in the last few minutes. Glancing to the warriors, she could see that half of them had slipped silently into the bush, with the rest spreading out to take up their space. Turning her head to the right she saw that most of the weapons had been retrieved and the horses were wandering slowly away, eating noisily. The men would notice any minute, she needed to offer a distraction. Taking a breath, Deirdre looked down when a hand lightly grasped her arm. Her eyes flicked to her friend who was shaking her head, no, no. Deirdre shrugged, much as she had seen her tribal friends do, what would you have me do?
Deirdre stood and stepped into the clearing just as one of the men noticed a clubbing stick moving by itself into the bushes. “Wha?”
“Doc! Doc! Are you alright? What have you done to him?” she rounded on the men, feigning indignation when her heart was thumping with fear. If she could distract them a few minutes more until all the men were free. She daren’t look at the warriors but focussed her fury on the white men now looking at her in astonishment. Glancing down at Doc, she saw his eyes open and slightly shake his head. Sighing in relief she examined his wound.
“Quick! I’ll need warm water to clean this and then clean cloth to bind it.” There was silence behind her for a beat then an ugly laugh rang out.
“Do you now, girly? Well, that’s a shame because there’s none of that here. Just some dirty blackfellas and their…hey! Where did they go?” The man, a big brute with missing teeth and ingrained dirt whirled about the campsite. No men. No weapons. No horses!
“Why you little slut. I’ll teach you to meddle!” and he advanced toward her.
Deirdre dragged at Doc’s arm, desperately trying to help him up and away. In a few strides the brute would have had her but for a blood curdling yell and the whole tribe erupted from the bushes, brandishing weapons. The white men were quickly subdued and tied with their own ropes. The warriors surrounded them, scowling furiously down at them, threatening them with spears and clubs should they move at all.
“There’s no need for this. We were just having a bit of fun. You know the government is rounding all these fellas up. They’re not allowed to roam around free. They’re dangerous, they are.” called the big man from the centre of the circle of stinking criminals.
Deirdre had heard it all before and said about her. She was just bending to tend to Doc’s wound when she heard a shout. She looked up in time to see her Jumbly Man stride into the camp and across to her. He scooped her up in his arms and breathed his relief noisily into her hair. Checking her over for injuries, he looked down at Doc, who was sitting up now. Doc’s eyes flicked across the campsite to the men. Jumbly turned.
“Mate! Mate! You gotta help us. Look what these blackfellas have done!”
Jumbly could see the story immediately. He scowled at the white men huddled in a circle and for once they had the good sense to be quiet. Jumbly advanced on them, big and furious, and the men cowered back.
His gaze took in the warriors and the women and children, the horses still wandering away and the remains of rope where they had bound the men. His gaze returned to the white men.
“It isn’t…It isn’t what it looks like..” the big man stumbled. It was exactly what it looked like to Jumbly and he opened his mouth to vent his fury. As he roared at them, the warriors, women and children brandished their weapons and yelled war cries. The lily-livered group at the centre cowered and quivered under the onslaught of sound and fury.
The Elders and menfolk of the village arrived and the criminals were walked away to the holding cells and things put back as right as they could be. The Blackfellas packed up their campsite and hurried away from this bad place. The Head Man stopped to speak with Jumbly, indicating Deirdre, now tucked under his arm, saying they would be back for their wedding. With a flash of teeth in a wide grin, he too vanished into the undergrowth.
Jumbly helped Deirdre back to Lauren’s. Doc was already home in bed, his head wound tended and his wife worrying. The Elders gathered to decide what to do and sent a runner to the local constabulary, once again. Their village had seen more criminals in the past year than it had in its many years of quiet Quaker living.
Jumbly saw Deirdre settled, allowing Lauren to fuss over her. When she was clean, dressed, her scratches tended and wrapped in a warm quilt by the fire, she gladly drank the herbal brew Lauren had made. Jumbly was reminded of when he had found Deirdre and her long recovery at Lauren’s. Here they were again, waiting once more for the Elders for Deirdre to tell her tale.
As he listened to her story, Jumbly felt humbled by his Beloved’s courage and resourcefulness. What an amazing woman his Promised was. Jumbly felt so proud of Deirdre that he felt he could burst. That turned to concern after the Elders left and Deirdre deflated with exhaustion.
“Why? Why? Why are men so evil? Why do they do such terrible things?” she cried. Jumbly scooped her up and settled her in his lap to comfort her. Lauren reached out as if to stop him and he met her eyes. Yes, why? Why with all the terrible things Deirdre had experienced did she not despise men, was she not afraid of them? Was she afraid of him? Was that what Lauren was trying to tell him? She was obviously not over her ordeal from her tormentors and he had jumped the gun in proposing. He should give her more time. His poor Deirdre. She may never be ready. Jumbly felt his heart break. He really couldn’t blame Deirdre if that was the case and prepared to put her down.
Deirdre however, had other ideas. She threw her arms about his neck and cried into his chest. When she had finished sobbing and was soothed by the circular rubbing of her back, she said, “You know, Jumbly, if it wasn’t for the good man my father was and the good men of this village and,” she looked up at him through tear spiked lashes, “the truly excellent man you are, I can imagine being so disappointed to almost hate men.” Jumbly nodded. Deirdre sighed and nestled against him. Jumbly’s big heart started beating again.
“Thank God, there is you and more good men than bad. Thank God for you who takes away my nightmares.”
Jumbly’s startled eyes flicked up to Lauren, who nodded sadly, admitting Deirdre’s nightmares although she had never mentioned them to him.
“When we are married, I’ll have you beside me and be safe from them all. Won’t I, Adam?” her voice, muffled by his shirt, sounded sleepy. “I’m so looking forward to telling everyone on Sunday. Good news should always follow bad.” Deirdre fell asleep. Jumbly, still holding her close, felt his eyes fill with tears and saw that Lauren’s eyes were brimming too.
“She’s a brave, strong girl, your Deirdre. You make a great team.”
Jumbly nodded and sat in front of the fire, holding Deirdre close for as long as she needed.
(c) CLHHarper April 2014