“The first day of the rest of our lives”, Jack smiled when he said it. He stood beside her on the verandah, looking across to the blue horizon sharply etched around the outline of the mountain range. “Bloody paradise.”
“Let’s explore it then!” Impulsively Jillian took her husband’s hand and practically dragged him down the wooden steps to the grass. “Ten acres, and I want to get to know every corner of it”.
Jack laughed, “Not quite, that gully’s pretty steep for a couple of old farts like us”.
“Speak for yourself”. With that Jillian was off, setting a brisk pace as she wove down through the tall, skinny gums, determined to reach the crystal-clear creek that marked their bottom boundary. She’d spied it before, but only from the other side, looking across the deep ravine. Now she wanted to really stake her claim by sitting on the ageless rocks and dangling her pavement-worn feet in the cool water.
But those same feet were her undoing, as she stumbled over an ant hill, then rolled down the slope, her chaotic journey halted by a rotting tree trunk trying to meld with mother earth.
“Oh my God!” Jack looked down at his wife of thirty years, the one and only love of his life. Even under his trim white beard she could see his top lip trembling.
“You’re not going to cry are you Jacko? I’m not hurting, don’t cry. I couldn’t bear it if I made you cry”. Jack turned his head, but the shoulders gave him away.
“You’re not crying at all! You’re laughing at me you old bugger!”
“I’m not. I’m not laughing”.
But he was. Jillian was what’s euphemistically known as a big woman. Her pretty face was still velvet-skinned and unlined but she had given up any hope that her tall, wide-hipped body would ever wear a belt again. She didn’t mind because Jack didn’t mind. “More to love” he’d whisper as they kept each other warm in their king-sized bed. But, covered in grass and a mulch of leaves and twigs, Jillian had to admit that she probably looked like a whale draped in seaweed. She started to laugh too.
Jack sat on the big log and leaned down to kiss her head. But he pulled up fast, when he saw the pretzel twist her leg had become .“ Christ look at your leg!”
Jillian followed his gaze. Still she couldn’t see her leg. It had done a 180 degree turn and was sticking out behind her. She had to crane over her own shoulder to get the full impact of the unhappy sight. She shrugged.
“Doesn’t hurt Jack. How bad can it be?”
“Pretty bad I’d say, must be broken in at least a couple of places to do a right turn like that”.
Jillian shrugged again and tried to get a better look. No luck. “Help me up Jacko”. She reached her arms out and he came and stood in front of her, knelt down and gave her a bear hug.
“Better not move darling. The pain might hit you. And we could do some more damage”.
They hung on to each other for a further minute, each contemplating a personal dilemma. Will it really hurt if I try to move? How am I going to get out of here? Jillian could feel Jack’s heart tap dancing against her generous bosom and knew he was starting to panic.
She’s too heavy for me to lift. I’d be dead before I got up the hill! Jack wished he’d kept up his gym membership, instead of joining the wine club.
“Let’s face it love, we need help”. Jack creaked his way into an upright position and reached into his pocket. “Shit! I didn’t bring my phone. You got yours?”
“I’m not married to it Jack. I don’t carry it around the house. You’ll have to go back up and ring from there.”
“I don’t want to leave you here by yourself.”
“Well that problem’s solved, at least.” Jillian nodded in the direction of the pair of dogs running towards them through the dilapidated gate further up the hill. “ What took you so long?” their mistress bellowed. Crazy with delight at their new free- range existence, they would have leap on top of her, if Jack hadn’t stood his ground.
“Oscar! Lucinda! Stop right there!”
They did just as they were ordered and looked around for the approaching traffic the command conveyed to city-slick dogs. When none materialised, they both sank to the ground and began to sniff their way to olfactory heaven.
“They’ll stay with me , you just go and ring for help”.
Stalwartly, Jack started up the hill, but seconds later he was back. “Who should I ring. An ambulance?” He looked at Jillian, a mountain waiting to be moved. “ Police rescue team?”
While they were pondering, the traditional Aussie bush cry rent the air.
“Someone’s come! Someone’s on the verandah!” Jack couldn’t believe it, help had arrived and he hadn’t even made the call.
“We don’t know anyone Jack. We only just got here. Be careful, it could be the local axe murderer”. The look on Jack’s face made the joke pay off big time. “ Hey, this isn’t the inner-city Jacko, friendly is what the locals pride themselves on. Remember the advertisement in the estate agent’s window? Live Where Your Neighbour Is Your Friend. You said that’s what you wanted, no grilles on the windows, no locked doors. Looks like you got your wish.”
So up the steep incline Jack trudged, prepared to be neighbourly, and needing to tap into the local network. “I’m coming. Wait there. On my way” he shouted.
When Jack came in sight of their wide-timbered dream house, the one they’d left the smart city apartment for, he spotted the caller. He was one half of a couple, his face as weathered as the scribbly gum he leant against.
“ Don’t mean to butt in. Just thought we’d welcome our new neighbours”. The old bloke smiled through a mouthful of gums, arm extended. His handshake was ,well, firm was the word that came to mind, as Jack tried not to wince.
“Name’s Morrie” He indicated the verandah and the trim blonde standing on it. “This here’s Cheryl, the missus”. The blonde waved, but nothing except the hand moved, certainly not the hair. “ Live at the end of the road, place on the hill. Used to own most of this valley.” His proprietorial sweep of the arm included the house and surrounds. “Till the first missus left me. Had to sell bits off to pay for me sins”. He gave Jack a man-to-man wink and indicated Cheryl with a backwards nod.
Thirty seconds in and I already know the story of his life. Jack’s city sensibilities didn’t know what response was expected so he just shook the hand that was stopping his blood flow and nodded.
“Jack, Jack Munro. My wife Jillian’s in a bit of trouble, took a tumble down the hill.” He pulled his hand out of his neighbour’s iron grasp and headed for the steps up to the house. “I’m pretty sure her leg’s broken, have to get her to the hospital”.
“Have to get her up here first mate”. Morrie was hot on his heels. “Cheryl, call the ambulance service. Me and Jack are going down to bring his old lady up.”
Jack took a closer look at the old codger. His skin looked like a crinkled brown paper bag and he didn’t seem to have a tooth in his head. But his eyes were lively,sharp blue pinpoints and he had the lean, wiry build that often belied toughness and strength. Jack decided it was worth a try.
“She’s right down near the creek”.
“No worries mate.” Morrie tackled the slope with the finesse of a downhill racer on skis. But his first sight of Jillian stopped him dead. “Bloody hell!”
The immobile mound in front of him looked up at the expletive, but before she could respond Jack appeared behind the human Banksia man.
“Darling, this is our neighbour, Morrie, he’s here to help.”
“We thought we might be able to carry you up. Morrie’s wife is calling the ambulance.”
“I don’t think that will work; do you Morrie?” Jillian looked at the man she’d never laid eyes on before and flashed her irresistible smile.
“Don’t think so Jill, don’t really think so.”
“Jillian, the name’s Jillian.”
“Yeah, well I’m Morris, but it’s Morrie to me friends.”
“Of whom I’m sure you have many”.
“Could use a few of ‘em right now, couldn’t we Jill. Your old man and me got no chance on out own”.
The big woman’s smile became decidedly frozen.
“Scuse me, I mean Jillian.”
Jack listened to this exchange in growing despair. Somehow he’d let Morrie raise his hopes. All three sat in silence for a minute. Then Morrie jumped up so suddenly he startled the dogs into barking at him. “I’ll get me tractor. We can load you onto the tractor Jill and take it slowly up the hill.”
Morrie was waving his arms about excitedly and Oscar took offence. He put himself on guard dog duty, standing at attention between his mistress and this interloper and growling through barred teeth.
Morrie looked shaken. “Won’t give us trouble will he. He’s a nasty-lookin’ bugger.”
The Chihuahua was pleased by the scent of fear that wafted towards him. He gave another rolling growl and looked at his mistress for approval.
“Oscar, you fool, sit down and behave yourself.” Jillian beckoned the tiny dog and, tail wagging, he licked lovingly at her hand then nestled down beside her.
“Right,” Morrie’s confidence reasserted itself, “tractor it is. Back soon, get this sorted. You stay here with the missus.”
Jack was tempted to salute, as Morrie headed back to the top. But Jillian wasn’t convinced about Morrie, or the tractor. “Bossy little cocky isn’t he. Seems a crazy idea to me. They only have those little seats.”
“He’s just trying to help. Anyway, his wife’s called the ambulance service, they’ll know what to do.” Concern coloured his voice. “How do you feel sweetheart? Any pain?
“I’d kill for a cigarette Jacko.”
“No good trying that on me. You’re not going to use this as an excuse to give in again.”
“You know, if I’d realised you had this mean, evil streak all those years ago I’d have married Peter Walsh instead. Then I wouldn’t have ended up following you here to sleepy hollow, falling down this dangerous gully and breaking my leg.”
“No, you’d have ended up smelling of fish and cutting up potato chips for the rest of your life.”
“Ha! It’s the seafood restaurant on Sydney harbour and you know it.” Jillian loved how Peter Walsh still got under Jack’s skin, even thirty years on. But there’d been no contest. It was Jack, from the first moment she saw him. No need to tell him I never gave a toss about the superstar chef though.
Suddenly Oscar was up doing his Rottweiler impression again, as two apparitions in fluorescent yellow jackets materialised from the nearby trees.
“Heard you needed a hand” one of them called as they approached. “Volunteer fire brigade”. The broader of the two men planted himself, feet apart, hands on hips, directly in front of Jillian. “Bit of a tricky situation here I’d say Ern.”
Ern the smaller man, looked just like a garden gnome; big ears, bushy whiskers, fat cheeks, red beanie and all. “Well that’s statin’ the bleedin’ obvious Trevor.” Then he remembered his manners, leaned over and gave Jillian a friendly pat on the shoulder.
“Don’t worry love, we pulled a cow out of Heggarty’s dam last week. Only took us two days, and she had a broken leg.”
Love wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. But Jack was in no doubt. He turned away, clearing his throat theatrically, shoulders shaking. Jillian logged another entry in her pay-back file and said sweetly. “My husband’s so glad you’re here, aren’t you Jack? He’s been talking about joining the volunteers ever since we signed the contract on this place.”
Trevor stood taller and held out his hand for Jack to shake. “I’m the chief in this district. I’m the man to help you out there.”
“Thanks”, Jack looked down at his wife, all innocence and affability, “a lot. First question is though Trevor, can you help us out right here?”
Trevor ruminated for a moment, sizing Jillian up as if he were a removalist and she a grand piano. “Big problem this…big hill…big girlie.” He winked flirtatiously at Jillian, who had already decided to push his head into a live hive, as soon as she could move. “ Me, well I hump sacks of macadamia nuts, lift anything. But Ern’s a runt.” Then he gave Jack the once over “and you’re….” Jillian waited with bated breath…“ a bit past it. We’d have to go up backwards. Might drop ‘er. It’s risky mate, but we’ll give it a go if you say so.”
Jillian leaned sideways to tug at Jack’s pants and get him to have a private word. When the weight shifted slightly, pain shot through her leg like a lightning bold, a millisecond of agony. “Aagghh!”
“It’s alright, it’s going, it’s going.” She took a deep breath. “It must have been the movement.” She addressed the three men now hovering in alarm. “But there’s no way I’m letting you three stooges lug me up that hill. I’m staying a still as these rocks until real help arrives.”
Jack didn’t see why he’d been lumped in with the locals. Maybe these two could understudy Laurel and Hardy, but you three stooges was going too far.
“Out of the way Trevor!” The high-pitched command startled the volunteer fireman into obedience and when he quickly moved aside, Jillian thought she must have started hallucinating. Marching towards her was a parade, led by a small, blonde- helmeted, middle-aged cheerleader, toting a picnic basket big enough to designate her as a weight lifter. Two more women followed on, one with a fold-up canvas chair under each arm, the other boasting an enormous, rolled sun umbrella, carried lance-like, in the forward position. A group of eager children brought up the tail, ready for adventure.
“The ambulance was off at the picnic races in Bulladella. Horse bit some fool punter. They’ll be a while yet. Thought you could use a cuppa.” Without further ado, Cheryl set the basket down, lifted out a large thermos with a pump spout and pumped steaming tea into a fat mug. “Milk and sugar? ” she asked Jillian, smiling politely as if serving high tea to a visiting bishop. Jillian just nodded her assent, too stunned to utter a word. She questioned Jack, with her eyes.
Replying to her silent enquiry, he made the introductions “ This is Cheryl, Darling, Morrie’s wife. Cheryl this is Jillian. ”
“Pleased to meet you Jill, welcome to the valley”.
The prisoner found her tongue. “It’s Jillian, Cheryl, Jillian”.
“Oh, Ok, Jillian. This is Maggie, she’s two down from you, and her daughter Denise”.
The mousey younger woman, now seated on the fold up chair, gave Jillian a little wave, then reached into the capacious basket for a mug and pumped hot tea from the thermos. “She’s expecting her first”, Cheryl whispered. Then she called across to Trevor, who’d distanced himself as soon as the women appeared. “That’s right isn’t it Trevor, right about Denise?” Denise went bright red and Trevor took a sudden interest in his boot laces.
“He’ll do the right thing eventually” Cheryl confided in her new-found friend. “Her dad’s the local MP, has to approve all the drought relief payments. Those macadamias need water and Trev has to buy it in.” She looked at Denise, now shaded by the huge umbrella her mother had opened over her and wolfing down a ham roll, “Needs to hurry up though, or the dress won’t fit. Lamington?” Cheryl proffered a plate of the delicious chocolate and coconut- covered sponge cakes, and the mesmerised refugees from suburbia took one each.
Jack bit into his, then remembered that he detested lamingtons, along with Vegemite and beetroot, his gourmet taste-buds bound to be misfits in his new surroundings. He was saved by the chugging of Morrie’s tractor, which turned all heads and let him drop the cake, unnoticed.
“Take it slow” yelled Ern, as the machine wound down the hill, trying to avoid jutting rocks and tree stumps. Fascinated, the audience watched as the tilting angle of the tractor grew more extreme, until it looked like a crab taking a nose dive.
“Shit!” The ditch created by the dislodged rock custom-fitted the huge tractor wheel and in she went, upending the seat and leaving the driver suspended, legs dangling like a midget on a lofty bar stool.
“Oh great! I was on a borrow for that tractor this afternoon, the steering on mine’s shot”. Trevor started up the hill, in the vain hope it was an easy rescue. Ern thought about following, but took a sandwich out of Cheryl’s basket instead and pumped himself a mug of tea from the thermos.
“Morrie, are you alright?” Jack though someone needed to ask the question, even just out of politeness.
“He’s ok, tough as a rhino my old man. Tractor might be buggered though.” Cheryl was wiping at the nose of a raggedy boy, about eight-years old. Unfortunately, he had Morrie’s walnut of a face, but when she finished and he smiled up at his mother, Jillian saw the little frog turn into a prince. He ran up the hill after Trevor, followed by Oscar and Lucinda, the dogs happily abandoning their marooned mistress to join the group of chattering children already using the tractor as a climbing frame, the star attraction in what was fast becoming an adventure playground.
“Wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette on you, would you Cheryl?” Jillian thought it worth a try, especially as Jack was up consulting with Morrie. Jack, who couldn’t tell a tractor from a ride-on mower.
“Sure Jill, I rolled a few this morning”.
Jillian was so nervous about coping with soggy paper and no filter that the misnomer passed her by. Too late to back out now. But when Cheryl lit up the home-made gasper and that first puff of pure tobacco hit her lungs, Jillian let out a moan of sheer pleasure.
“Good huh, Jill? Pure as it gets. Got a couple of me own trees, well nearly as big as trees, dry and cut it meself. Morrie keeps threatening to pull ‘em out but he knows if he does I’m outta here.” Jillian didn’t reply. She just floated on a cloud of relief, as the tobacco flooded her bloodstream.
“How’d you get yourself into this mess anyway? A woman your age should’t be attacking gullies like this”.
“I know that now Cheryl, but when I looked out from my verandah this morning, saw all that space and smelled the eucalyptus in the air…I don’t know, I just didn’t feel sixty years old, and as fat as a hippo. I felt young and daring again. I even felt slim.”
“You’re not that fat” Cheryl lied kindly.
“I’m fat enough to have to stay down here for… what time is it now?”
“Half past eleven”
“For three hours. And still no one knows how they’ll get me out. I might just have to spend the rest of my life on this rock.” Suddenly Jillian felt very sorry for herself, and scared. Just how much pain was in store when they did lift her?
“Would you like a shot? I’ve got a bottle of Johnny Walker in the basket. Just for medicinal purposes, you know. In case you were having a real bad time of it.” Jillian looked at her companion in awe, and nodded.
When the sound of the whirlybird tore at the air, Jillian and Cheryl were happily enjoying a drink and a smoke and taking in the activity around the tractor site. Even Denise and her mum were getting in on the act and Jillian noticed that Trevor had his arm around what was left of the girl’s waist. The two blokes who had the stretcher obviously thought this was the accident site and stopped at the ditch. Until Jack brought them further down, to his wife. Clearly, they didn’t like what they saw.
“That leg will need real work Mrs Munro. I don’t know how we can move you out of here, but when we do you’ll need pain
relief. Once the weight lifts off…” he left the rest to their imagination.
“Not feeling a thing right now. I’m rather comfortable actually”. Jack caught sight of the empty Johnny Walker bottle, and wasn’t a bit surprised.
“Need a few details, may as well get the paperwork done first.” The paramedic referred to his notes. “Full name please sir ”.
“What, what did you say? I can’t hear a thing with that bloody noise”.
The news helicopter was hovering just above the tractor site and semaphore -like signals were passing from the ground to the chopper, causing confusion at both ends. The second paramedic pulled out his two-way, adjusted the tuning and spoke loudly into it. “Piss off will you Tony, get your picture later. We’ve got trouble down here.”
An answer crackled through the air “I’ve got a deadline to meet goof-off. This is human interest” then he laughed, “bloody funny pictures too”.
“Give me that!” Jack grabbed the two-way and barked into it, like the professional news room director he’d been, until three months before. “I’ll give you human interest and pictures, pictures that will go national, with your station’s logo all over them. Just swing that thing around and lower a pulley seat to your mate down here. Send the cameraman down on it, so he can get establishing pictures from the ground and plenty of footage of your banner on the bird. Keep the fixed camera running up there, so you can edit for both angles. You’re about to be heroes, boys.”
When the bird swooped lower into the gully, everyone followed, so that by the time the cameraman was on the ground he was surrounded by kids, dogs, a shiny- yellow- coated firemen, a garden gnome impersonator, Central Casting paramedics, a busty blonde revealing plenty of cleavage, a wild old bushie, a couple of sob sisters having a good old cry and a female Buddha, bestowing that benevolent smile on everyone, through a haze of smoke, alcohol and enough morphine to hobble a small horse.
What pictures! I’ll get a Wakeley Award for this!
As she rose rather majestically to the sky, one leg strapped to a board, the other swinging freely in space, Jillian could see it, the whole ten acres, creek and all. In fact she could see two of it.
“I’ll come see you in the hospital Jill”. Cheryl called up to her cheerfully.
“I’ll look after the dogs Jill, don’t you worry”. The little prince already had his arms full of Oscar and Lucinda, who were lavishing him with licks.
“We won’t have the wedding until you’re back home”. Trevor gave a wave and put one arm around Denise and the other around her smiling mum.
Such wonderful neighbours Jillian thought, as she drifted happily off again.
“You know what Trevor?” said Ern, as they climbed the hill. “That’s the way we should have got the bloody cow out of Haggetys creek!”.
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