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"Just like that?!" Alice was incredulous, unwilling to believe that a mere few seconds distraction could have such dire repercussions. "But I only took my eyes away for a second!" Those same eyes swept over the busy instrument panel where the gauges registered zero across the board: zero altitude, zero speed. She exhaled with force, collapsing like a rag doll against the steering column, her brow shiny with sweat. Momentarily she felt a hand on her shoulder and without looking up, she knew Janice was crouched beside her. "Five seconds... five, tops..." she muttered and her shoulder received a sympathetic squeeze. At last, she looked up and regarded Janice with genuine regret. "I killed us."
"Yup," was the minimal reply. Janice stood, tucking the cigar between her teeth before adding wistfully, "Such a waste. I was so young."
Alice threw up her hands in frustration and sat back so forcefully that the co-pilots seat groaned in protest. Wetting her lips, she stared hard at the unslaked earth beyond the co-pilots window, earth that a few seconds earlier she had regarded as the Electras undoing. As her heartbeat slowed to normal, she marveled at the combined effect of Janices powers of suggestion and her own vivid imagination. She looked at the perspiration pooled in the creases of her palms. It had seemed so real. Re-running the scenario in her mind, options that mightve spared the Electra and her passengers sprang to mind and she was visibly eager to put them to the test. "Okay, Janice, I think I know what I did wrong before."
"Oh, you do."
"Can we take her up again?" Alice ventured. "This time for real. Just once around the field?"
Janice loosed a hoot. "I told you: Mel would have my head." She hefted the satchel and slung it over her shoulder. "Come on, I need a bath. Im starting to offend myself." To her surprise, her pronouncement was accepted without argument or complaint and by the time she had boosted Alice through the hatch, the conversation had shifted from Electras to the blurry orange sun beating down on them with ferocious commitment. "Is this what the locals call a fair cow of a day?"
"Its only spring, Janice," replied Alice, as her rear made contact with the super-heated metal skin of the Electra. "The real heat hasnt even begun yet."
Janice rolled her eyes. "Swell." Stepping on the arm of the pilots seat, she passed the satchel through the hatch into Alices waiting hands. "Careful with that," she cautioned. "Precious cargo in there."
"Ive got it," replied Alice. She slid down the fuselage to stand on the wing. She heard someone call her name from ground level and had to shield her eyes to make out two silhouettes framed in the sun. "Dinah?"
The smaller of the two figures stepped forward, into the shadow cast by one of the Electras massive wings. "Gday, Alice." She smiled, her teeth a white slash in her ebony face. Her features were pinched and tight as she regarded her contemporary and the unfamiliar craft beneath her feet. "This is new. Is it yours?"
Alice squatted on the wing, bringing the satchel to rest at her side. "Wish it were. That your dad with you?" The second Aborigine, clad in wrinkled khakis and a denim shirt opened to the waist, joined Dinah in the welcomed shade of the wing; the ground was cool beneath his bare feet. Alice greeted him with casual respect. "Gday, Mr. Bonner."
Neville Bonner was heavy-browed and broad-nosed; as his large frame suggested, he both spoke and moved with economy. "Alice." He nodded at her, and then his large yellow eyes shifted to Janice as she emerged from the plane.
"Alice, whore you..." Janice froze momentarily, 120 lbs of startled archeologist suspended in
the open hatch by her considerable upper body strength. Green eyes, as no-nonsense as a jewelers scale, moved in frank appraisal from daughter to father as his long, ropey arms helped Alice to the ground.
"Janice, this is my friend, Dinah..." Alice put her arm around Dinah, as if to demonstrate the level of their friendship. "And her dad, Neville Bonner. This is Dr. Janice Covington... the Electras hers."
Janice jumped from the wing unassisted. "Gday, Mr. Bonner." Tribal body paint, visible on his arms and chest, was similar to that adorning the bodies of her Aborigine diggers at Kakadu, hard- working, family-oriented men who kept to themselves. She watched a black fly make lazy progress across Bonners brow as she struggled to recall the name of the tribe. "Alawirrynu?" she asked.
Neville grinned, displaying teeth that had seen better days. "Gupapygnu."
"I was close," Janice conceded with a self-deprecating grin. "Youre a long way from home."
"Not really," Dinah interjected, her eyes narrowing to slits as she scrutinized the young woman in mens clothing. She had only ever met a dozen whites in her young lifetime and she could, without conscience, relegate half of that number to gumafj, the Gupapyg word for abyss, the place you never look back. But she liked Janice at once. "Our home is beyond the billabong...
there..." She thrust a dark finger west, in the direction of the merciless sun, but not one of the four spared the locale a glance before she inquired delicately of Alice, "Is your mum about?"
"Shes back in Adelaide. Shell be flying up next month to collect me, so youre safe for now," replied Alice with a knowing wink.
"Well, if youll excuse me..." Janice relieved Alice of her satchel. "I have a date with a bar of soap." Neville, who had been standing nearest her, smiled politely and nodded. "Nice to meet you both." Dinah, whom Janice perceived as garrulous by Aborigine standards, merely grunted and took Alice by the arm; the girls were head to head, immersed in whispered conversation before Janice set foot on the verandah.
The screen door opened with a tortured screech, and closed with the report of a gunshot. Janices reaction was as ingrained as breathing; she ducked before she could stop herself.
"Jesus!" she exclaimed to the empty room.
"The springs broken," said Mel, fighting the urge to laugh. She stood at the kitchen threshold, holding the door open with the toe of her shoe. There was an apron tied loosely around her waist and her hands were dusted with flour. "You have to let it back gently."
"Thanks for the warning." Janice gave a nervous laugh and approached Mel, stopping halfway across the room, the large leather sofa between them. "You baked bread. I can smell it." Even from this distance, it was more than flour and paprika; on the warm air was the familiar scent of sage...it was an invitation to sweet memories.
"Sourdough," Mel replied simply, displaying her powdered palms. She let the door swing shut behind her, committed to the conversation. "Your favorite."
My favorite. Janices throat tightened, unwitting accomplice to the foolish grin that was no doubt pasted on her face. The situation begged for a snappy retort. A quick comeback was a damned religious imperative, but her brain wasnt on speaking terms with her tongue. No other person
on earth could steal coherent thought from Janice Covington faster than Melinda Pappas...in an apron...with dough on her hands. She made a beautiful thief. "Sourdough." She blinked, as if waking from a coma. "Good." Sourdough good? Covington, you ole smoothy you! Shes reduced you to a monosyllabic Neanderthal. Sourdough good. Very slick. She inhaled deeply, glad for the segue occasioned by an unfortunate whiff of herself. "Bathroom?"
"Through there." Mel gestured with her hand, raining flour upon the hardwood floor. "Theres towels and soap...waters lukewarm, Im afraid." She couldnt resist the dig, "You ought nota dawdled."
Janice smiled unconsciously. "Yes, maam." She popped a mock salute, turned on her heel and left Mel to decipher the mood in the room.
Mels puzzlement and the faint line between her brows faded with the feather-light touch at her elbow. "What...oh, Alice...I didnt hear you come in." She touched the girls hair and face and smiled with genuine affection just before nag mood kicked in with, "You smell like a stables. Go and wash up for supper."
Alice tossed a glance over her shoulder, to the fragmented silhouettes beyond the screen door, and followed Mel into the kitchen. "Can I help with something?"
"Hands," replied Mel. She gave her own a cursory swipe with the corner of her apron and then used the same corner to grip the oven door. Using a fork, she noted the consistency of the veal and the color of the juices bleeding from the puncture site. "Almost there."
Alice watched her from her place at the sink, hands thrust under the running water as she perfected her approach. "Mel, you remember my friend, Dinah, dont you?"
Mels head disappeared into the icebox as she rooted around for the butter. "Who?"
"Dinah...you know...you met her last month when her father, Neville came to fix the loo; shes Nevilles daughter."
"I think you have made that abundantly clear," replied Mel patiently as she straightened. She set the butter dish on the butchers block and closed the icebox door, giving Alice her undivided attention. "Now, is this conversation leading up to something or are you just killin time?"
Alice wiped her hands briefly on a dish towel, but they were still wringing wet as she tossed it aside. "Dinah and Neville are out front. Theres a corroboree tonight. Ive been invited."
"I see." Mel studied the girls hopeful face and weighed the options: she had a responsibility to Jack and to Peggy. She had made promises to them both. Alice had been present at that same meeting in September, the day before her fathers induction. She had been, in essence, dropped on the doorstep by her mother, bag in hand. Mel remembered that although Peggy Greenway had been cordial and polite, she had never set foot inside the house Jack and his new fiancee shared. Instead she had leaned on her car, one arm draped protectively about her daughter and laid the ground rules out for all parties. She had been especially careful to wring a promise from Mel that Alice would have no intimate contact with the local aborigines whom Peggy believed to be a bad influence on her only child. She, Mel, had begrudgingly agreed to keep the two apart, but she vividly remembered a clandestine wink in Alices direction as she shook her mothers hand on the deal. She had so wanted to be the good guy in her new role as stepmother. Now, 2000 miles away, Peggy Greenway was calling her bluff. "I made a promise to your mother."
"I remember," replied Alice. "But Mel, this is different."
"How is it different?"
"Dinahs father is sending her to school in Perth. I wont see her again till next break." Alice advanced until she was within touching distance of Mel. Perceptive girl that she was, she knew the value of passive intimidation. "The corroborees a going away celebration. Its an honor to be invited." Mel nodded solemnly, feeling slightly claustrophobic. Alice applied a verbal wedge. "It would be an insult to refuse."
"And you were raised better than that, is that it?" Mel asked as she pushed open the kitchen door, Alice hot on her heels. She stopped short of the front door. She could see Dinah and Neville through the screen. As their boundaries had been set years before, both stood near the Electra, talking animatedly between themselves, as if the drama inside the house did not concern them. "The answer is no, Alice." Before Alice could open her mouth in protest, Mel elaborated. "We have company this evening. Imagine how Janice would feel if you abandoned her at the first opportunity."
Alice shifted where she stood, staring holes into Mels back. "Janice would understand," she replied confidently. "Ask her."
Mel turned at the waist. "This is not a democracy. I am the adult." Sometimes adults make unpopular choices. "You are the child. My mind is made up," she said, wishing her voice sounded more resolute.
Quietly, her voice absent of bitterness, Alice said, "Can I ask why?"
Mel was impressed by the quiet strength in the girls voice. "Because its late...because I dont know their character..."
"You know mine," Alice countered levelly.
Mel nodded, tight-lipped. It was a good argument. She felt well and truly caught between Scylla and Charybdis, and it was a trap of her own making. A final guilty glance at the two figures beneath the Electras wing and she turned again for the kitchen. She stopped briefly, the flat of her hand against the swinging door and without turning, she said, "Go on and give them your regrets, and then come back in and set the table." She stood there, frozen, listening for an angry retort and heard only the indifferent groan of the door as it opened and closed on the meager rapport she had once shared with Alice.
Mel felt a hand between her shoulder blades; it would have been so easy to turn around and melt into what would surely have been a welcomed embrace. "You heard?" The warm hand migrated to her arm, imparting an affirming squeeze. "Oh, Janice...I have just made a horrible mistake."
Janice turned her forcibly until they were face to face; the blue eyes that met hers were clearly troubled. "Nothing that cant be put right again. I mean, who but us is ever gonna know that --"
"I promised her mother I would look after her."
"And youre doing a great job; shes a terrific kid with a good head on her shoulders." Mel was quick to nod agreement and Janice took advantage of that. "Then trust her."
"I want to, but if something were to happen to her --"
"Shell be fine. Shes more mature and more responsible than half the adults I know. I wont name names," she said smiling before her lips dissolved into a serious line. "Be her friend, Mel...shes got a mother." Mels eyes shifted from anxious to wounded, and instantly Janice regretted her tendency to speak every thought on her mind. She had stepped into the middle of
a situation where her opinion was not wanted, needed nor welcomed. Worse still, she had offended her host and impugned her parenting skills. Open mouth, insert foot. "Well, Ive insulted you. My work here is done," she announced, her cherubic face displaying a devilish grin that was just as likely to hinder as it was to help. She searched Mels cherished face for signs of forgiveness; the smallest smile would have sent her off to soak with a lighter heart. She turned and walked towards the bedroom door, pulling the shirt tail from her jodhpurs, giving the offended party every opportunity to put her ill-mannered guest at ease. But once she was on the other side of the rough-hewn door, peeling the sticky blouse from her body, she had given up hopes that Mel could forgive her for this breach of etiquette. If she had harbored any doubts that she was welcomed at Coolinga, welcomed back into Mels life, they had just been confirmed
with deafening silence.
CONTINUES IN CHAPTER 7
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