An extract from Reason to Believe by Lavinda de Rossi
THE FIRST OF MAY
SOMEONE WAS WATCHING ME. I sensed. I looked up from my gardening. My gaze, drawn to the far side of the dirt-track road, sought confirmation. I listened for the slightest giveaway sound. I thought I saw something move in the bushes by the Jacaranda trees - fleetingly - then all was still again.
It was the first of May already. Three months since I had arrived at Kickatinalong, the Settler’s Cottage I was renting between Wonglepong and Canungra. I looked around. Someone had left the rickety gate to the paddock opposite, wide open. It dangled awkwardly on its one remaining rusty hinge, barely visible amongst the eye-high undergrowth. Left fallow this year, the paddock served as a safe habitat for wallabies, kangaroos and their joeys, hares, lizards and snakes - and many a venomous spider.
Sun-blazed, the morning mist hung heavy on the dew-studded cobwebs shrouding the honeysuckle that clung to the paling fence surrounding the old property. By the feel of things, today was going to be a good day. “One when portals to other worlds, for a few hours at least, would be left ajar. A time when those permitted to see can become ‘at one’ with things.” That’s what Old Ned had told me when I had been a kid with pigtails - back in the UK.
I missed the man of the woods of Derbyshire and wished he were still around today. But he was long gone. Now here I was, on the other side of the world, in sunny Queensland, Australia – alone. It’s odd, I thought, how you can suddenly think of someone from the past and it seems as though they are standing beside you.
Soon, Jessica, my new found friend, Yorkshire-bred friend had told me, the onset of biting winds from the dry interior and below zero temperatures at night would drive me reluctantly in-doors to seek comfort from the wood-burning potbelly stove. Perhaps, a time to reminisce, to clutch a mug of hot soup and recall the bitter winters of England, of tobogganing in the snow, icicles, my chubby chapped legs, ankles with chilblains and enchanting patterns on frosted-over windowpanes. In winter, here, Jessica had affirmed, clear blue skies and icy mist at dawn, heralded a warm sunny day.
The smell of the earth’s response to last night’s rain teased the bridge of my nose. I stifled a sneeze. It was then I spotted the fox.
Swiftly, silently, on her way home after a night of scavenging for wood
ducks, unwary cats and insecure hen coops, chancing many an angry farmer’s gun, the vixen hurried southwards towards her lair. Trotting alongside her gambolled two cubs.
“Yer get down wind of a fox, if you want to track him. Remember, lass? Can’t smell yer. Not if yer down wind.” Old Ned’s words seemed to echo down the years. “As long as yer’re quiet about it, ee won’t know your there.”
Taller than the average man; his chiselled features spoke silently of strength. His hair was silvered then, but his eyes sparkled, alive with light from within. Whenever they met, he’d taken delight in teaching this overweight, clumsy, city child, many secrets about the natural world. He’d taught me how to ride bareback on Pete, the piebald pony he’d saved from a life in interminable darkness down the coal pits and I still possessed the catapult he’d made for me from the sacred tree, of Yew. There was an ineffable sense of peace that always surrounded the man.
Looking back, Ned must have known, but didn’t say; he would soon be going away when he’d asked to borrow my autograph book. When it was handed back to me at his funeral, I’d hurriedly leafed through the pages. He’d written something there, in fountain pen, in copperplate.
“Whatever you are be that. Whatever you say be true. Straight forwardly act. Be honest. In fact… Be nobody else but you. Have many friends. Trust but few. But always, paddle your own canoe.”
The fluttering wings of the black and white songbirds settling noisily in
the mulberry bushes broke my thought pattern.
Amber-brown, the vixen’s eye caught that of human, green. Sleek,
slim, in her prime, with bristling fur raised in russet hackle, she warned her young. Within seconds, they were gone.
“Bootiful day! Isn’t it?” said a familiar voice from the other side of the fence.
With only a hint of her original Yorkshire accent, Jessica Rylands, the township’s revered; feared and now retired schoolmistress gave me a broad grin. “Sorry I startled you, luv.”
Dressed in her ‘sensible walking shoes,’ as she referred to them, an old Scottish box-pleat tweed skirt and her favourite green Pringle wool twin set, each day, at early light, she would pound the road of life, accompanied by her stalwart black dog, a retriever.
“You made me jump, Jessica! Where’s Chico?”
“Lagging behind! Fancying himself with some bitch or other. And a fat lot of good it’ll do him.”
“Got time for a cuppa?”
“Luv one, my dear. Hoped you’d ask,” she said, already beginning to open the five-barred gate that blocked her way. “Too early for a drop of booze, isn’t it! Always enjoy a glass of sherry,” she said hopefully. But as it fell on deaf ears, she dropped the thought. “Ah! There you are Chico,” she said.
At the sound of padding paws behind her, Jessica turned to look behind
her. “You’ll have to wait for me now. Come on in. Sit! I won’t be long.”
Chico looked dolefully up at his mistress , sat down on his haunches then shuffled about a bit making himself as comfortable as he possibly could on the sharp black edges of the road base that made up the gravel yard.
His mistress’ deep brown eyes, encircled by heavy horn-rimmed spectacles, stared lovingly at him. “He understands both Spanish and English, you know.”
With an audible sigh, as one accustomed to waiting, Chico let his mouth drool apart. Tongue lolling, he sat there panting.
“Likes to think he’s on guard,” said Jessica. “You know, he’s more intelligence than most humans. Present company excepted,” she said with a chortle. “Sometimes I think he’s someone I used to know – long ago.
“Come on in. I’ll put the kettle on and we can have a chinwag.”
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