December 2021: The Last Best Blog... plus a free Matilda, Jed and Scarlett story
Here is a hastily written December blog, because like everyone else I have a ‘to do list’ up to my ears and also want to enjoy a green and hopefully totally non dramatic Christmas.
There are two new books out that I would love you to buy, because that is what keeps us in carrots, pays the rates and other necessities. One is a picture book with the Wonderful Whatley, Christmas Always Comes about a small boy droving in the 1932 drought who knows that Christmas can always be wonderful, no matter what.
The other is a book for adults, though there’s no reason why younger readers who want to staying up reading a large book till 2am because it’s the holidays can’t read it too. It’s called No Hearts of Gold, is set in gold rush 1850’s Australia, and possibly a bit of my heart is in it too.
There is one major new award which can’t be announced yet, but may have been by the time
you get round to reading this. The wombats are fat and ignoring us. The wallabies have so much grass they aren’t even nibbling the roses and geraniums, and I am not going to do a gardening section as this is the time to ignore weeding, feeding and just get into picking, eating, and maybe giving gorgeous plants to friends.
But I did remember to write this down. I know exactly what happens to the families of Gibber’s Creek, Overflow, Drinkwater, Dribble, Moura and Rock Farm, even if there is unlikely to be another full book about them. So here it is a short bit of ‘what happened next’, with love,
From Jackie and the wombats,
Araluen December 2021
Perfect is Overrated
The room smelled of apricot muffins fresh from the oven, baby marsupial milk and the dank stink of flood. The stench of flood was stronger.
Jed stroked the tiny wombat on her lap. He had drunk for perhaps two seconds, and was now curled up, eyes closed, though at least his pink-grey baby skin was no longer shivering.
‘He’s going to die,’ Scarlett muttered, easing her vastly pregnant self into the armchair opposite.
‘Nonsense,’ said Jed. “I’ll get more fluid into him soon.’ The baby wombat would go to Felicity and her veterinary surgery as soon as the flood subsided, which should be only a day or two, for the rain had stopped. But most of the water’s rage had crashed from a deluge upstream. Outside the river swirled and muttered, logs hitting trees, foam flicking through the cloud grey air around the house.
But old Matilda had chosen well when she’d bought the Dribble property for Jed. Every girl needs a home of her own, she’d said, and Jed’s house was well above flood reach, as was this house William had built for Scarlet after their marriage, now two islands as the paddocks on the other side turned into lakes.
William had built a good house, long and low, it’s thick mud and concrete walls fireproof and weatherproof. The side facing the river was almost entirely glass, with hardwood shutters that could be pulled down against the cold or heat.
‘I didn’t mean the wombat.’ Scarlett looked at her adopted sister with desperate eyes. ‘I mean my baby.’
Jed looked up in alarm. ‘You’re not having contractions?’ Scarlet’s baby wasn’t due for another two months, and by caesarean, as the condition she had been born with meant she was still small boned, and almost elf-like. Although the almost total lack of muscle tone that had ruled her childhood had vanished, thanks to intensive therapy, determination, and possibly matters that medical profession didn’t yet understand, just as the still had no idea what caused such cases.
It didn’t help that the baby’s father was half-Maori, and had made the house’s doors half as tall and wide again so he had no need to duck his head.
‘No contractions,’ said Scarlett miserably. ‘I just know it’s going to go wrong! It was all supposed to be so perfect …’
The perfect wedding, the perfect house, the perfect job in a medical practice with Jed’s father-in-law, the perfect pregnancy… but Scarlett had lost that child at seven weeks, and the next at just on twelve, nor could any doctor - including herself - tell if that was related to her condition.
And now the flash flood had left Dribble a small island half an hour from Gibber’s Creek Hospital, and their respective husbands.
Jed stroked the tiny wombat again, to wake it to drink. It was vital to get more fluids into the scrap of a thing. It had survived the road accident that had killed its mother, just Jed suspected the baby had become severely dehydrated, lying in the pouch for hours till Jed had spotted the body at the edge of the road.
The phone rang. Jed lifted the wombat in its soft pouch of old pyjamas and answered it. ‘Flinty! No, we’re fine. Plenty in the fridge and the water isn’t even up to the 1978 level yet. Yes, Scarlett’s fine, too. Well, okay, she’s panicking a bit…’
‘I am not panicking! I am concerned,’ said Scarlet with dignity.
‘She is concerned. Love to you too.’
The phone rang again as soon as Jed out the receiver down. ‘Sam darling, we’re fine too, except Scarlett is concerned. Stay dry and I’ll see you and Mattie and Mike when the water drops. Love you too.’
She sat down again. ’Scarlett love, there’s nothing to worry about.’
‘If you were a doctor you’d know just how much there is to worry about. Pre-eclampsia, all kinds of complications with the cord. Jed, if I go into labour now my baby will die. I’ll die.’
‘Shh. You are not going into labour just because we’re flooded in. Have another muffin and let’s talk about something else. Christmas …’
‘I don’t want to talk about Christmas,’ said Scarlett wretchedly. ‘Either I’ll have my baby and it will be perfect and, or I won’t be able to bear it. I should never have married William. He deserves a wife who can give him a hundred kids.’
‘William loves you madly’ - and had already called four times this morning to tell his wife just that. ‘And I doubt be wants a hundred kids.’
The phone rang again. ‘I’m going to unplug the blasted thing,’ said Jed viciously. ‘Yes, we’re fine, Scarlett is fine, oh sorry Felicity, I thought you were Blue or Leafsong calling Scarlett. The wombat is warmer, and I’ve got maybe two teaspoon’s worth of Wombaroo into him. Yes, I’ll give Scarlett your love. Yes, I’ll tell her that, too.’
‘Felicity sends her love and says to be glad you’re not an elephant and have to gestate for three years.’ Jed boiled the kettle again, made a pot of rosehip tea, and plonked it in front of Scarlett. ‘Christmases don’t have to be perfect to be wonderful. Did I ever tell you the story of Matilda’s first Christmas?’
Scarlett shook her head.
‘The first Christmas after Tommy had finally come into her life again. They’d loved each since they’d met in Grinder’s Jam factory when Matilda was twelve years old, and had been parted for so long. They married on Christmas Eve, 1915. Tommy’s daughter Anna, who’d become my grandmother, was staying with Tommy’s mum that Christmas. Tommy’s mum had cared for her ever since Tommy’s wife had died.
Those few Christmas days were supposed to be their honeymoon. It was an anxious time; more than half the stockmen were away at the War. Most of the young men they knew had gone. Two of the Sampson boys had died at Gallipoli. They’d lied and said they were Indian so they could join up, even though they were Aboriginal. Drinkwater was desperately shorthanded – everyone was. It was hot, the sheep were fly struck, and Matilda and Mrs Sampson and Dianne had been out working in the paddocks from dawn to lamplight. Tommy had been back in Sydney, heading up a project making some kind of radio for the army. But they were both taking five whole days off, and Matilda had decided it was going to be perfect.
Jed laughed, ‘When Matilda decided something was going to be perfect, she didn’t do it by halves. The house smelled of beeswax polish; the sheets were dried on lavender bushes and ironed with lavender water. Two girls came from Gibber’s Creek to polish the silver and rinse the dust from the best crockery. The sheep were moved up to the Clancy’s, and the stockmen with them, so Matilda wouldn’t be tempted to go out dagging fly-blown ewes on Christmas Day. Bluey and Curry and Rice were too old to join up, although Curry had dyed his hair and they’d all tried lying about their ages. But that meant they were still around to look after the sheep. Elsie had the week off too, to help with the peach harvest.
‘Every vase in the house was filled with flowers, not garden flowers but the yellow everlastings that grew wild along the river, because this was finally Matilda’s “forever’’’.
Jed sighed at another jangle from the phone. The wombat wriggled and woke as she answered it. ‘No Alex, I don’t know what Scarlett’s blood pressure is and I’m not going to take it …’
‘It was 115 over 92 this morning,’ called Scarlett.
‘Hear that? That’s good, isn’t it? What? I’m trying to keep her relaxed but phone calls every two minutes aren’t helping. The flood will be down in two days, three at the most. No, there isn’t room for a helicopter to land in the garden. The nearest dry flat land is probably up at Overflow. I promise I’ll call if anything changes…’
Jed grabbed another muffin. ’Where was I? The turkey was in the Coolgardie safe on the veranda, already cooked, because Matilda was the worst cook in the universe, even worse than Nancy.’
‘Impossible’ said Scarlett, who had grown up with Nancy’s meringues that stretched along the kitchen, and stews that contained mysterious bits of string, and once even a Paddle Pop stick.
‘Not according to Michael. He claimed his mum could even burn water. Matilda’s aunt had done all the cooking when she was young, and by the time Matilda came to Drinkwater she could afford a cook and housekeeper. Luckily Michael was born with an iron stomach and 30% of the normal number of tastebuds. The Coolgardie also contained a giant rabbit pie and a rooster terrine to eat cold, and the larder was full of puddings and Christmas cake, and old Mrs Lee - except she wasn’t old then, of course - was going to have one of her sons deliver fresh bread and milk to the veranda every day. Even Matilda couldn’t burn toast, well, not always.’
Jed smiled, remembering Matilda’s joy each time she told the story of the first days of her marriage. Fifty years later and the happiness hadn’t faded. Jed could almost smell the rose perfume that still clung to Matilda’s wedding dress, stored up at the old house with the rest of the collection of fifty years of the best fashion’.
‘So she and Tommy had their first night, alone together at last at Drinkwater.’ Jed grinned. ‘Matilda wouldn’t tell me anything about that night except to say, ‘Just you wait till it's your turn with the love of your life, my girl.’ And when they woke up the sun was streaming in and turning the room a dappled gold and everything was silent. Matilda got up and looked out - and the world was water.
A flood had come down the river from the mountains in the night, the late snow melting in a storm. But like all the old houses around here, Drinkwater and its garden were out of flood reach. She and Tommy had each other and that was all they needed.’
Scarlett made retching noises. ‘If that was any sweeter there’d be bees invading up the septic tank. Just don’t put anything like that in your next book.’
‘My next book is set in the Antarctic, 1735.’
‘Nothing was happening in Antarctica in 1785.’
‘Exactly. It’ll be a short book.’ Jed quipped as she watched Scarlett’s eyes lose their terror. ‘There was still bread from yesterday, for toast, even they didn’t have the croissants Matilda had sent Lofty the Gibber’s Creek baker to the French café in Sydney to learn how to make. There was cherry jam to eat with the toast …’
‘And presents around the tree,’ put in Scarlett, remembering the first mechanical wheelchair so many Christmases ago, a product of Tommy Thomson’s Industries, that had allowed her first independence. She did love Christmas.
Jed laughed. ’There were presents alright. A mountain of paper, fabric and bits of wood. Matilda had left all the doors open to cool down the house overnight, and the animals had invaded as the water rose. One especially pungent wombat had even managed to gnaw the extraordinarily rare and expensive titanium drill bit Matilda had imported for Tommy from America despite the war and shipping shortages.’
‘So what did they do?’
‘They laughed. Matilda said they were the best Christmas presents ever. Tommy treasured that gnawed drill bit all his life. He even had it framed.’
‘Is that the weird thing still hanging on the stairway wall?’
‘That’s it. Matilda left it to me in her will. She also left me the patchwork petticoat she made out of all the scraps of ruined silken underwear too. It’s the one I wore as a sundress at the river last New Year.’
‘That was when they heard the crash. They raced out onto the veranda in time to see this massive goanna hauling the turkey out of the Coolgardie. It had already finished off the pie and terrine. Oh, and a pair of possums had got into the larder, and the cake and pudding too.’
Scarlett giggled. ‘So what did they have for Christmas dinner? Tinned corned beef and boiled cabbage?’
‘Well, when I said Matilda couldn’t cook, I didn’t mean she couldn’t produce a meal, no matter what the circumstances.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Matilda had lived with Aunty Love for years. Aunty Love was half-paralysed by then, but she’d still shown Matilda a few things.
‘What kind of things?’
‘The things you eat when you’re twelve years old in a hut in the bush with an old woman to look after. That goanna couldn’t get very far with flood water pounding around the garden. So Matilda got the axe from the woodpile…’ Jed lifted an eyebrow.
‘You don’t mean …? Yuk!’
‘Matilda dug an earth oven just like Love had shown her. She lit a fire to heat the stones, with the floodwaters still lapping all around them, then wrapped the goanna in wet grape leaves and damp hessian sacks and threw it on the hot rocks with a whole of potatoes, a cabbage and pumpkin, then she and Tommy buried the whole lot.’
‘Did it work?’
‘Of course it worked. Even Matilda couldn’t burn food in an earth oven. Christmas dinner was a bit late – way past dark in fact. But the champagne was cool in the cellar and Tommy cooked scrambled eggs for lunch and the pancakes his mum used to make, and they ate them with plum jam the tin of caviar Matilda had ordered from Sydney.’
‘They didn’t really eat the goanna!’
‘Of course they did. Matilda said it lasted them for half a dozen meals.’
‘It was have been a bloody big goanna.’ The flood didn’t go down for three days.’
‘Matilda said there were massive ones around here back then. All the big ones have been killed since then -they’d go after the lamb as well as the hen coops- but goannas live for decades, even hundreds of years, and just keep growing.
‘I wonder what goanna tastes like?’
‘Sort of sweet and gamey,’ said Jed absently. ‘A bit like Nancy’s apricot chicken, but quite good too, hard as that is to imagine.’
‘Jed! You haven’t eaten goanna!’
‘Of course not,’ said Jed innocently. ‘Native animals are protected. Even if they have been squashed by a passing truck and you need to try them for research. You know,’ she quickly changed the subject ‘Matilda must have told me that story half a dozen times. How they rescued a bit of the pudding, then wished they hadn’t because the smell of possum sort of grew as they tried to eat it. And how Tommy gave her a silver goanna bracelet the next Christmas. Nancy wears it now. I suppose Nancy’ll be ringing up to check on you next …’
‘No need.’ Scarlett’s voice held nothing but laughter now. She waddled over to the window and pointed. A boat was heading across the paddocks, rowed by one large husband, Jed’s somewhat smaller one, with Nancy sitting in the prow with a large picnic basket on her lap, obviously navigating, and Scarlett’s medical school friend Alex sitting between the rowers, cradling his medical bag.
‘The blokes must have driven the back way to Overflow over the mountains,’ said Jed. ‘That’s probably where they rang us from. They probably didn’t want us to worry about them setting out in the flood.’
‘Nancy knows the river,’ said Scarlett comfortably. ‘If she said the back way over the paddocks was safe, they’ll have been fine.’
Sam and William had already hopped out, wet to their knees, while Alex and Nancy sat relaxed and dry as the others hauled the boat up into the garden beyond the flood.
‘The perfect rescue,’ said Jed.
‘Are you crazy? I mean I’m glad William and Sam are back, but I’d rather have Leafsong be the one to bring us provisions. And if Alex thinks he is going to be on hand if I need an emergency caesarean he can swim down to Gibber’s Creek and find me an anaesthetist. And an obstetrician.’
‘He won’t try any such thing. A helicopter may not be able to land here, but now we have a boat they can row you to a clear paddock if you need it. Which you won’t.’
The rescue party were still on the veranda, loudly complaining about poor navigation and the diminishing muscle tone of the rowers while they removed wet footwear.
‘Thank you,’ said Scarlet very quietly.
‘For being here. For always being here when I’ve needed you.’
‘You’ve been here for me, too, brat.’ They exchanged a brief and very awkward hug over Scarlett’s bulge, as Nancy triumphantly carried in a casserole ‘Apricot chicken! There’s enough for dinner for two nights, too.’
And wondered why the rescuees both laughed.
Six weeks later Boudicca Judith O’Hara- Ryan, 2.7 kg and with a fuzz of black hair, was born at the Gibber’s Creek Hospital by caesarean section. Scarlett believed in names to aspire to, and the variations on the family names had already proliferated. During the procedure William and Jed had held Scarlett’s hands behind the screen, while Alex and Angus were – quite unnecessarily - on hand on the other side in case assistance was needed by Drs Pemerbton and Riley.
It flooded again the week before Christmas. Mud covered the swimming hole. Boudicca got heat rash. The mozzies rose in a thick brown cloud each afternoon and night. The baby wombat – now round, brown and into everything - discovered Boudicca’s first doll under the Christmas tree and had demolished it by morning, clearly demonstrating its distain for the patriarchy, as Jed said when they discovered the remnants.
Mattie sat next to a bull ants’ nest that had moved due to the flood and spent Boxing Day with her arm plastered in zinc cream. Jed and Nancy set Scarlett’s new redwood bench alight when they were overgenerous with the flaming brandy. A Gibber’s Creek Centenary tea towel also caught alight when they tried to beat out the flames, which extinguished themselves as the alcohol evaporated five seconds later, leaving the smouldering tea towel smoking up the kitchen, and everyone else oblivious of the hazard in the kitchen.
It was, as everyone agreed, a perfect Christmas.
a Few Recipes
Apricot Chicken is the worst, classic 1960's 'instant with a packet of French onion soup' dish, sweet and salty....
Christmas is too interesting a day to waste on muesli for breakfast. We tend to nibble on good things till the main meal, such as marinated olives, pistachios, cashews, cherries, delicious cheeses and crackers, croissants from the local bakery Dojo. And I always make stuffed eggs, except for last year when I didn’t, and everyone complained....