"That's the one," Jo said quietly as they approached the next mailbox.
Cadie pulled the truck over, sliding to a halt about 10 feet from the battered green object.
"No offence, sweetheart, but how do you know? It looks like all the others we've passed."
Jo didn't answer. Instead she opened the passenger side door and dropped to the ground, her boots kicking up a puff of dust. She walked slowly over to the mailbox and placed one hand on top of its metallic surface as she gazed up the track to the unseen homestead.
Cadie wasn't surprised by her lover's silence. Jo had been quiet since they'd turned off the main road to Wilcannia onto the dirt track that had brought them to this point. They'd passed three or four other mailboxes without a word from the tall skipper, but this one had brought her up short. Cadie switched off the engine and climbed down. Slowly she walked over to Jo, placing a comforting hand on the dark-haired woman's back.
"That's how I know," Jo murmured, nodding at the side of the mailbox. 'Madison' was neatly printed in uniform white letters. But underneath, in a sprawling, childish hand was written 'and Jo'.
"Ohhh," Cadie gasped, noticing the words for the first time. She grinned up at her lover. "I'm guessing you were about 10 when you did that."
"Eight and a half," Jo replied, mustering a small smile of her own. "Phil was with me when I did that." Cadie wrapped her arm around her waist and Jo settled her own arm across the blonde's shoulders. "We were out for a ride and I brought a little pot of whitewash with me. I think I was trying to tell the world I existed."
"Ride as in horses?"
"Yep. We've got quarter horses. Or at least we did then." She turned to look up the track leading to the homestead. "I can't believe how dry it is," she muttered. "I don't ever remember it being like this." They gazed around at the landscape, its harsh lines and dry colors shimmering in the oppressive heat.
"I don't know how anyone can make a living out of this land," Cadie said quietly, impressed by the stark beauty of it all.
"You don't make a living out of this land," Jo replied grimly. "You just survive off it. And wait for the next rain and the wool prices to go up."
Cadie looked up into Jo's face, watching the tensions and anxiety flickering across the uniquely angular features. She patted the taut stomach under her hand gently.
"Come on skipper," she said. "Let's go get the most nerve-wracking bit over and done with, eh?"
Jo looked down at the blonde, her expression softening as she met the love in Cadie's eyes.
"Okay," she replied softly. "I think I can do that."
Cadie's face broke out into an affectionate smile, full of confidence. "I know you can, sweetheart."
Jo kissed her then, immeasurably glad to have Cadie along for the ride. "I would never have had the guts to do this without you. You know that, right?" she whispered as they broke the kiss.
"I'm glad I can help," Cadie replied, reaching up to hug Jo close.
They separated, Cadie heading back to the driver's side. Jo began to walk to the truck but hesitated when the memory of another family ritual resurfaced. She turned back to the mailbox, returning to it and gingerly lifting the lid. Memories of close encounters with redback spiders tickled her senses and she looked inside before carefully reaching in. As expected there were at least two of the nasty bities in residence.
"Good to know some things haven't changed," Jo chuckled. She plucked out the small pile of letters and closed the lid again, leaving the spiders to their dark, hot little world.
Jo settled back into her seat and closed the car door.
"Family rule," she said in answer to Cadie's quizzical look. "If anyone's close to the mailbox, bring in the mail. Otherwise it can sit in there for weeks." She smiled faintly. Cadie patted her thigh and turned over the ignition, directing the truck onto the rough dirt track.
"How far from the homestead are we?" she asked as she carefully negotiated around a fallen log.
"About 15 minutes."
David Madison sat back on his haunches and wiped the sweat from his tanned forehead with the back of his hand, the rough work glove scraping against his skin. He looked up into the cloudless sky and tried to judge the position of the sun.
Just after noon, he decided. Scattered around him were the pieces of the bore pump he'd spent the morning disassembling. So far, he'd found not a damn thing wrong with it, but that was all right. He'd come out here because it was about as far as he could get from the homestead and still be able to get back just after dark. Jack and Hughie, he'd sent in the other direction, knowing there were some boundary fences that needed four hands to fix.
David's mouth was parched and he could feel his sweat-soaked work shirt sticking to his back. Slowly he pushed himself up off his knees and walked back to his four-wheeled ATV. Clipped onto its back tray were a large water cooler and a thermos bag full of cold roast lamb sandwiches. David pulled his gloves off and stuffed them in the back pocket of his jeans then he dropped his Akubra onto the tray.
Coward. He poured himself a cupful of ice-cold water, downing it three big gulps before filling the cup again. Stubborn, useless coward. David drank deeply again. Leaving Maggie to do the meeting and greeting on her own. He pulled a handful of sandwiches out of the bag and sat down on the ground, leaning back against the ATV's big grooved wheel. The bread was fresh and the cold meat tender and juicy. She's a good old girl. I don't deserve her, honest to God I don't.
All week long he'd been dreading this day. And when push came to shove he preferred to put off the inevitable for as long as possible. So he'd come out here on the pretext of needing to do some repairs. It wasn't that he didn't want to see Josie.
God knows, I've been dreaming of this day for 15 years, he admitted to himself, picking up another sandwich. My baby's coming home. He bit down on the sandwich, viciously ripping away a mouthful. Except she's not my baby anymore. She's ... He chewed thoughtfully for a few minutes. I don't know what she is. Not anybody I know anymore. Not normal, that's for sure.
He and Maggie had argued just last night about it. The sleeping arrangements. David could not for the life of him see how they could allow Josie and her ... her ... "Jesus, I don't even know the word for it," he muttered aloud. Anyway. He wasn't happy about them sleeping together in his home. But Maggie had insisted.
"We're going to make them both welcome, David," she'd argued. "And I don't care what you have to say about it. Josie is what she is, and I don't care what that is anymore. This other woman seems very nice. If she's a part of Josie's life, and makes her happy, then so be it."
So be it. Maggie had spoken and that was that. David stretched his legs out and crossed them at the ankles. He gazed out at the mess he'd made of the water pump. Whole thing's a mess, he thought morosely. I guess I should be like Maggie. But I just can't get my head around ... around any of it.
He'd long ago let go of the anger in his life. The drawn-out recuperation from the heart attack had taken care of that. Anger at Jossandra for the way she'd left. Anger at the banks. Anger at the Americans for their lamb tariff. Anger at the goddamned weather. None of it mattered anymore, he knew that. All that matters is putting food on the table for Maggie and I and paying the bills, he thought. It had become his mantra.
What did we do wrong? he wondered. She couldn't wait to get away from us. She had no problem staying away from us. And now she's ... she's ... Quickly he pushed himself up off the ground, tired of the circular debate going on in his head. Fix the damn pump. Just fix the damn pump.
The object of David's frustration felt like her stomach had turned itself inside out and switched places with her lung. Jo fidgeted in the seat while Cadie drove.
"There it is," Jo pointed out. Cadie lifted an eyebrow. It was rather difficult to miss the homestead, it being the only thing over about four feet tall as far as the eye could see. She didn't comment, however, recognizing that her partner was wound tighter than the wire fence that ran alongside the track. Instead she patted Jo's thigh and turned the truck into the gap in the fence. They rattled over the cattle grill and across the bare patch of dusty ground between them and the neat white one-storey home. Cadie pulled up and applied the parking brake. She looked around, taking in her lover's childhood home.
Apart from the main house, set 50 yards to the left, near a stand of forlorn gum trees, was a smaller cottage that Cadie guessed was for the workers. Behind that again was a collection of ramshackle buildings, including a large shed and what she guessed were stables. Around the main house was a white fence and beyond it a garden.
Cadie brought her gaze back to her lover. Wide blue eyes blinked at the scenery, focused on the dark and open doorway in the middle of the homestead's wall.
"You okay, sweetheart?" Cadie murmured, squeezing the dark-haired woman's knee reassuringly.
"Scared shitless," came the curt reply.
Maggie Madison gripped the edge of the kitchen sink so hard her knuckles turned white. She had watched the four-wheel drive approach from the northeast and now she knew the moment had arrived. A blonde sat behind the wheel of the stationery vehicle and the tall figure next to her could only be ...
Maggie's heart just about tripped over itself in the effort to escape her chest. For long seconds she just watched. The two women were talking, Josie's gaze swinging from the blonde to the house.
"Get out there, Maggie," she told herself. She dropped the tea towel onto the draining board and smoothed her hands down over her denim-covered thighs. Damn, I'm nervous, she realized, looking down at fingers that were visibly shaking. With a deep breath she steadied herself and stepped out into the brilliant sunshine.
"It's going to be just fine sweetheart," Cadie said soothingly.
"I don't know how this is going to turn out, Cadie," Jo replied, looking at her lover with honestly scared eyes.
"Whatever happens we'll get through it together. Just be yourself. That's all they're going to want from you."
Jo's eyes softened.
"How did you get to be so wise, kid?" she asked, managing to find a grin from somewhere.
"About 15 years' more experience with parents than you, Grandma," Cadie replied. "I'd kiss you now, but I think that might truly freak your mother out at this point." She nodded in the direction of the house, where she had noticed a tall figure walking towards them.
Jo's head snapped forward.
"Oh god," she said faintly.
Cadie gave her one last pat before Jo opened the door and climbed out of the truck. Her palms were damp as she clenched and unclenched her hands. Tentatively, she stepped forward, disconcerted to find her legs unsteady. Her only consolation was that the woman coming towards her looked equally unsure of herself. Please god, don't let me throw up on her.
Maggie drank in the sight of the tall woman approaching her. She grew up beautiful, she thought. My gangly, clumsy teenager grew up into a beauty. Brilliant blue eyes gazed back at her as they came to a halt just outside arm's reach of each other.
For a few endless seconds neither knew what to say. Jo tried to match the elegant, gray-haired woman who shared her facial features with the memories of her youth. The face was the same more tanned and more lined, certainly but unquestionably it was her mother. A surge of something very familiar and warm caught Jo by surprise.
"H-hello Mum," she said hesitantly, a smile playing across her lips. Then just as quickly, it was chased away by her uncertainty.
Maggie's hands flew to her mouth as the emotions rose up and engulfed her. She had seen the fleeting smile, the youthful insecurity that swept over her daughter's face and it brought a sharp sense of recognition. She couldn't form coherent words, the ache in her throat too tight and jagged.
Jo raised a hand, half-reaching for her mother, knowing that the older woman was close to tears. But she felt awkward, unsure of what her parent wanted or needed.
"Mum, it's o-okay," she said instead, startled to find her own voice strangled.
"Oh Josie." Maggie stepped forward quickly, wrapping her arms around her daughter's shoulders and pulling her close. Tears came hot and fast as she held the warm and well-known body against herself. "Oh Josie, baby, welcome home."
Jo stiffened and gasped, the words curling around her heart like a soothing balm. She hadn't been held by her mother in ... so long. Gradually she relaxed into the hug, returning it gingerly even as she absorbed her mother's scent clean and sun-warmed, with a trace of the lavender soap she'd always used. Jo felt her own tears now as they drifted down her cheeks.
"M-mum, I'm s-so s-sorry," she managed around hitching breaths. Immediately she felt her mother's hands changing to a soothing movement on her hair.
"Sshhh, babygirl. None of that matters now. You're home, that's all I care about. You're home."
Home. Jo closed her eyes and let the warmth of her mother's welcome wash over her. I'm home.
Cadie watched the family reunion from her seat behind the truck's steering wheel. Although she couldn't hear what was being said and Jo had her back to the blonde, Maggie Madison's emotions were clearly written on her face. Cadie exhaled on a long, ragged breath as it became obvious that her lover's reception was more than welcoming.
Both women were crying, she knew. Although she could tell Jo had been surprised by her mother's hug, Cadie was pleased to see her lover not only accepting it but returning it in kind.
"Thank god," she murmured, her own stomach releasing some of the knot that had formed. Still got the father to get through, but this is a good start. She felt tears sting her own eyes and quickly she wiped them away. Come on Jones, she urged herself. Time to meet the in-laws. Jo had left the small pile of mail on the seat next to her and Cadie scooped it up as she opened the car door. She walked around to the front of the truck and leaned back against the bull-bar, just waiting.
Maggie pulled back a little from the hug and took her daughter's tear-streaked face between her hands. With long thumbs she brushed the tears away. Over Josie's shoulder she could see the pretty blonde standing quietly, head bowed.
"Are you going to introduce me to your girl, Josie?" she asked, her heart warmed by the look of joy and wonder that flicked through her tall offspring's blue eyes. Maggie smiled. "I can't wait to meet her."
"I-I was worried that ... that you ..." Jo was silenced by her mother's fingers against her lips. Maggie's eyes, paler than her own, but just as intense when they wanted to be, held nothing but acceptance and curiosity.
"Don't you worry about that," her mother reassured. "I can already see she makes you happy. That's all I care about, Josie." She tipped Jo's head down and kissed her forehead softly. "Now, come on, introduce us."
She was treated to Jo's trademark killer grin before the younger woman turned to look at her partner.
Cadie's eyes lifted from the dirt to meet Jo's as her lover reached out with her right hand. Relieved, Cadie took the proffered hand and moved to her side. She was somewhat surprised when Jo wrapped her arm around her shoulders, pulling her close to place a kiss in her hair. She wasn't about to argue though and slid her arm around her partner's waist, patting Jo's belly reassuringly with her other hand.
Maggie watched the scenario with a tiny smile. I thought this would be so hard to see, but I was wrong, she thought. It's obvious how good they are for each other. They balance. Green eyes looked up at her from under the blonde's unruly fringe with a quiet intelligence that impressed Maggie. This one has depths, she decided.
Well, now I know what Jo will look like in 20 years or so, Cadie thought, meeting the pale blue gaze as they sized each other up. Maggie was every bit as beautiful as her daughter, though a lifetime spent working in a harsh landscape had added weather-beaten lines of experience to the familiar features. Something to look forward to, Cadie decided, smiling tentatively at her future mother-in-law.
"Mum, this is Cadie," Jo said simply, meeting her mother's eyes.
Cadie reached out with a hand. "It's great to finally meet you, Mrs Madison," she said, widening her smile into a friendly grin. Maggie took her hand and firmly pulled her closer. Within seconds she had wrapped Cadie up in a warm and welcoming hug. The blonde found herself chuckling as she returned the embrace, liking the older woman already.
"You must call me Maggie," she insisted, letting the American go, although she kept hold of her hands. "Welcome to Coonyabby."
"Thank you, Maggie," Cadie said, ducking her head in gracious acknowledgement. "Jo's told me so much about it, I'm really looking forward to exploring."
Maggie glanced around at the countryside she was so familiar with. "I'm afraid it's not as pretty as it can be right now," she replied. "This drought's been hard on the grass and flowers."
"It's still beautiful country," Cadie murmured. She was aware of Jo's warmth at her back, could almost feel the edginess in her lover's demeanor. Cadie remembered the mail and handed it to Maggie. "Jo-Jo remembered to pick this up on our way in," she said with a smile.
"Ah, thank you," the older woman replied, glancing cursorily at the stack of letters. "Bills, mostly, I'm sure." She looked up, seeing her daughter's nervousness over Cadie's left shoulder. I think we all need to relax a little, she thought. "Well, I don't know about you two, but I could certainly go a cup of tea." Both women smiled in agreement. "Josie, blossom, why don't you bring the truck around to the side of the house and bring your bags inside?"
Cadie turned to her lover. "Blossom?" she mouthed, tossing Jo the keys to the truck. Jo flushed despite the twinkle in the blonde's eye.
"Oh great. Thanks Mum. Give her teasing material, why don't you?" Some things never change.
Maggie dismissed it with a poo-pooing wave of her hand. "Something tells me this one doesn't need much encouragement on that score. Now go do." She took Cadie's hand again and pulled her in the direction of the homestead. "I'll have a cup brewing for you."
Cadie looked back over her shoulder at Jo, flinging her a helplessly apologetic look. Jo just snorted and flashed her lover a happy grin, letting her know it was more than all right.
"I'm beginning to feel like John F Kennedy," she muttered to herself as she watched her mother dragging her girlfriend away. "I'm the woman who accompanied Arcadia Jones to Coonyabby." The thought made her giggle and she felt almost light-headed with relief as she climbed up into the truck and turned the key in the ignition. Now all we have to do is convince Dad.
The kitchen was cool, a blessed relief from the relentless sun and airless heat outside. Cadie sank gratefully down onto one of the wooden chairs that surrounded the central table. Maggie bustled around her, putting together cups and saucers while the kettle heated on top of the stove. Cadie looked around, taking in all the details of the room. Everything had a vaguely 1970s feel about it and although the fittings and appliances were elderly, all were obviously well-cared for and sparkling. It was kind of comforting, she decided. It feels like home.
Being left alone with Maggie this early on in their visit was slightly awkward, but it only took one look at the older woman's all-consuming interest in the bottom of a tea cup to tell Cadie that she wasn't alone in feeling that way. She's probably a lot more nervous than I am, the blonde realized.
"This is a lovely room, Maggie," she said, hoping to find a way of putting them both more at ease. It won her a slightly distracted smile in reply.
"Thank you," Maggie replied. "It hasn't changed much over the years, but it's always served us pretty well." They lapsed into silence again before the kettle began to whistle and steam. Maggie quickly lifted it off the heat, trickling the boiling water over the leaves. "How do you take your tea, Cadie?"
"Just black with one sugar, thanks," she replied.
Both women listened to the sounds of Jo pulling the truck up to the side of the house and then slamming doors as she extracted their luggage from the back. Maggie placed Cadie's tea in front of the blonde and sat down next to her at the table.
"So," the older woman said tentatively. "How did you and Josie meet?"
Cadie smiled. It was the obvious question and did at least put them on fairly safe ground.
"I was with a group which chartered a yacht from her company for three weeks. She was our skipper." Cadie beamed, the happy memories of their first hesitant steps towards romance obvious on her face.
"Ahhh, and you just couldn't resist each other?" Maggie found herself smiling back at the blonde, her happiness infectious. She decided to ignore the incredulous little voice inside her head that couldn't quite believe she was having this conversation.
Cadie blushed under the inquisitive blue gaze that was so like her partner's.
"Something like that," she replied. "It was a little more complicated." She felt her color increase even further as Maggie's look intensified. "I was, um, with someone, when we first met." Cadie held her breath, waiting to see what the response was to that.
Maggie absorbed the news, stirring a spoonful of sugar slowly into her tea, her eyes on the swirling liquid. Finally she looked up, catching the faint hint of anxiety in the American's green eyes. She smiled gently.
"Love's a complicated thing," she said, reaching across to pat Cadie's forearm.
The blonde nodded and breathed again. "Yes, it can be," she agreed. Okay, that's that little hurdle out of the way, she thought with relief.
They were interrupted by the arrival of Jo at the back door. The tall woman had Cadie's large sports bag in one hand and her own backpack slung over her left shoulder. She turned sideways to negotiate the narrow doorway and then came to a sudden halt just inside the familiar room. Cadie smiled at the look of shocked wonder on her lover's face. This could be the first in a long series of those looks, the blonde realized.
Jo felt like she had stepped into a time warp. Apart from the appearance of the kitchen she swept her eyes around the room she had grown up in it was the smells which brought the memories flooding back.
"You've been baking," she murmured as her mother stood and handed her a cup of tea. Maggie raised an eyebrow and patted her cheek softly.
"I'm always baking, love," her mother answered. She chuckled as she watched Jo sniffing the air speculatively.
"Bread," Jo guessed. "And ..." she sniffed again. "Chocolate cake?" Cadie giggled at the look of childish hopefulness that lit up Jo's face. Maggie nodded and her daughter grinned triumphantly. "Oh, Cadie, you haven't eaten until you've tasted Mum's chocolate cake," she stated.
"Good?" Cadie asked, playing along.
Jo dropped the bags long enough to take a sip of her tea. Dead milky and two sugars, she thought. Just the way I like it. Trust Mum to remember that.
"Not just good. Heavenly."
"Tch, you're exaggerating, Josie," Maggie demurred. She moved over to the sink and began washing out her teacup.
"I'm not," Jo disagreed. She put her mug down on the table and picked up the bags again, exchanging a meaningful look with Cadie as she did so. "Where am I taking these bags, Mum?" she asked.
Maggie turned around and leaned back against the sink as she dried her hands on a tea towel. "I've put you both in your old room," she said quietly. "I hope the bed's big enough."
Brownie points for you Mrs M, Cadie thought as Jo's eyebrows lifted up under her fringe.
"Um, okay then," Jo murmured. She winked at Cadie as she hefted the bags again and headed out of the kitchen and down the hallway that ran down the middle of the house.
Maggie watched her go, a tiny smile playing across her lips. Her eyes drifted away and caught the pale green gaze of the petite American leaning on her kitchen table.
"Thank you," Cadie said softly. "That was worrying her."
Maggie fiddled with the tea towel, tying the cloth into a knot in front of her.
"I'm not going to pretend that I'm entirely comfortable with it Cadie," she admitted. "But it's more important to me to see her happy." She glanced up and gave the blonde a frank look. "And you make her happy."
"The feeling is mutual."
"Cadie!" Jo's voice sounded vaguely startled and Cadie jumped up. She scurried down the corridor and found her partner standing in the doorway to a small bedroom. The blonde put her hands on the taller woman's hips and peeked around her into the room.
"Wow," Cadie murmured.
"Oh yeah." Jo sounded shaky and Cadie nudged her forward until she could walk around and into the space.
Jo's bedroom was almost like a museum piece an exhibit on childhood. Cadie wandered the edges taking in the minutiae of her soulmate's youth. A wooden shelf held a collection of crystal and porcelain animals. Some were exquisite, but most bore the telltale signs of being well-played with. A china cow balanced on three legs, a horse was missing a tail. At the other end of the shelf were a large number of Matchbox model cars of all varieties. Cadie grinned at them, picking up a sports model with opening doors. My girl the tomboy, she thought.
A higher shelf was piled with books Cynthia Harnett, Rosemary Sutcliffe and a wide range of science fiction and fantasy Asimov, Heinlein, and Donaldson. A battered, well-thumbed copy of Lord of the Rings held prized position.
As she moved around the outskirts of the room, Cadie continued to pick up items, learning something new about Jo from each one. Stuffed toys, a crystal radio set, posters of Bjorn Borg, Martina Navratilova and television cops Cagney and Lacey lined the walls.
Jo sat down on the edge of the bed. Her emotions were rubbed raw and close to the surface as she watched Cadie exploring. I can't believe they kept all this stuff, she thought. How could they have stood to look at it all after I left the way I did?
She must have had the most bemused expression on her face because when Cadie turned around to look at Jo, the blonde chuckled and walked over. She crouched down between Jo's feet, placing her hands on her partner's knees.
"How are you doing?" Cadie asked, smiling up into uncertain eyes.
"Um, I think my brain is dribbling out my ears," Jo muttered, provoking a gentle laugh from the blonde.
"I think I like who you were when you lived in this room, Jo-Jo," she said.
Blue eyes finally focused on her. "You can tell that just from the things in here?" Jo asked.
"I was a rat-bag, Cadie."
The blonde stood up and let Jo pull her close for a hug. She stroked the long, dark hair as Jo buried her face in Cadie's shirt.
"You were a teenager, sweetheart. A smart, curious teenager."
A muffled snort was her reply and Cadie ducked her head to drop a kiss on the top of Jo's head. "Mmmmmm, that feels good," Jo said as she wrapped the blonde up tighter.
Maggie found them like that, the sight stopping her in her tracks at the entrance to the bedroom. Neither woman had heard her approach and she spent a few seconds absorbing the reality of a type of relationship with which she'd had utterly no experience.
How can people think of this as a bad thing? she pondered. Look at the love and support they give each other. Everybody should be so lucky.
She leaned against the doorjamb and cleared her throat quietly, disappointed to see the two young women move apart quickly. "You don't have to do that, you know," she said matter-of-factly. "I was just thinking what a lovely sight you make."
Jo rubbed her face, trying to dispel the blush she knew was coloring her cheeks.
"Sorry, Mum. This just takes a bit of getting used to." She glanced up at her partner who had moved over to the large stack of vinyl music albums and singles in one corner. "At least it does for me. Cadie is an old hand at the parental thing."
Maggie stepped into the room and sat down next to her daughter.
"Your parents know about ... um ... you? And Jo?" she asked Cadie, who sat down next to the pile and began sifting through the treasure trove of 1980s music.
"Oh yes," she replied. "They've known since I was in college. I think I was 20 when I told them."
Maggie leaned back on her hands, unconsciously mirroring Jo's posture. Two peas in a pod, Cadie thought, smiling quietly to herself. The apple certainly didn't fall too far from the tree in this family.
"How did they take it?" Maggie asked tentatively.
Cadie leaned back against the wall and crossed her legs at the ankles. She thought about it before answering.
"Bear in mind that my home town has a large, and pretty vocal gay and lesbian community and my parents were both born and bred there," she explained. "So they certainly weren't unaware." Maggie nodded. "Even so, I guess you're never prepared for it to be one of your own children," Cadie continued. "But by the time I was coming out, Mom and Dad had already figured out that having me alive and healthy was the most important thing."
Maggie sensed there was more to that story than she was getting. But perhaps now isn't the time to be digging any deeper, she decided. I'm sure there are going to be plenty of opportunities to learn more about this young lady.
"You're going to find us awfully backward out here, then," she said aloud. "I'm embarrassed to say that you're the first ... gay person ... I've ever known."
Jo nudged her mother's shoulder.
"You've known me for over 30 years, Mum," she reminded her. "And there was Phil."
"I'm sorry. I think it's still a little hard for me to think of you ... that way." She shrugged apologetically.
Cadie watched quietly from the corner. Mother and daughter were looking at each other like they both had a lot to say but couldn't quite see a way to start the conversation. Time to leave them be, Arcadia, she decided. She pushed herself up from the floor, dropping the handful of 45s she'd been looking at back onto the pile.
"I'm going to do a little exploring," she announced as she walked to the door. Jo grabbed her hand and squeezed it gently as she passed. Cadie deliberately leaned down and brushed a light kiss across her partner's lips. "Be back soon."
"Okay, love," Jo murmured. Cadie was almost out the door when another thought occurred to her. "Sweetheart?"
The blonde looked back in.
"Don't go out of sight of the house for now? It's easy to get disoriented out there if you don't know your way around."
"Aye, aye skipper," she agreed.
"Oh shut up," Jo retorted, laughing at the retreating back.
"Skipper?" Maggie raised a surprised eyebrow at her daughter who blushed under the scrutiny.
"S'just a nickname my crew members use when we're working," Jo explained shyly.
Maggie shook her head wonderingly. "This is a lot to absorb, Josie. Last time I saw you, you were just a kid. And now you've got all this responsibility, your own business." She nodded her head in the direction Cadie had disappeared. "A partner."
Jo grinned, happy to latch on to a subject she was comfortable discussing, even if her mother wasn't.
"She's great isn't she?"
Maggie took in the sparkle in Jo's eyes and the undisguised happiness in her smile.
"She's lovely," she agreed readily. Hesitantly she reached up and cupped the beautiful, and familiar, face in her hands. "I feel like I've missed so much of your life, Josie."
Jo nodded. Maggie's hands dropped away and Jo's gaze dropped with them. She suddenly found the fading pattern in the worn rug fascinating. "You have, Mum. And that's my fault. I did the wrong thing by you and Dad leaving the way I did and I wouldn't blame either of you if couldn't forgive me for that."
She was silenced by warm fingers on her lips.
"Now you just cut that out, young lady," her mother said sternly. "You were just a baby. And this is a hard life for kids out here. You got impatient and wanted to get on with your life. We always understood that."
Jo looked at her incredulously.
"You can't honestly believe that what I did was acceptable, Mum," she exclaimed.
"I never said we thought you did the right thing," Maggie corrected. "But we always understood why you did what you did."
Jo still looked skeptical.
"I hurt you both."
Maggie nodded slowly, wondering just how far she should push. "Yes you did. You scared us and hurt us and angered us." She bit her lip as she watched Jo wince. Don't stop now, Maggie, she thought. This is a chance to start over with her. Clear the air. "But if you think that means we don't forgive you, then you need to think again."
Jo blinked, not quite comprehending what she was hearing. In her wildest dreams she couldn't have imagined her mother would be calmly sitting next to her, forgiving her within an hour of seeing her again. She felt tears sting her eyes once more and tried to squelch them.
Maggie smiled at her dumbstruck offspring.
"Is that so hard to believe, bloss?" she asked, brushing an errant tear from Jo's cheek with the pad of her thumb.
Jo struggled to speak around the lump in her throat. She nodded instead, swallowing down more tears.
"Josie, you're my daughter. I can forgive you anything."
God, I wish that were really true, Jo thought, closing her eyes against the urge to tell her mother every terrible crime she'd ever committed. She felt fingertips brush against her cheek. For now, it's enough - a blessing - that she forgives my leaving. She opened her eyes to find Maggie calmly waiting. I am so lucky.
"Does Dad feel the same way?" she asked, searching her mother's face for any clues about her father.
Maggie sighed. "That's a very complicated question to answer, love." Regret swept across Jo's face and she hastily put her arm around her daughter's shoulders, pulling her close. "No, no, I don't mean he doesn't forgive you. Of course he does. He adores you, Josie. He always has, always will."
Jo breathed in the memory-laden scent of her mother's clothes and soap. Still the same stuff she used to use. Lavender. She felt a sudden childish urge to bury herself in Maggie's embrace. The older woman sensed the hesitation and made the decision for her, wrapping her up in an all-encompassing hug, her cheek resting on the top of the dark head. Why did I ever want to leave this? "You have to understand that everything your father is everything he values is wrapped up in this place," Maggie continued. "Of course he hoped you would want to take over running the property when he retired, but he also knew there was every chance you wouldn't want to. And he knew that before you left."
Jo listened quietly, the rumble of her mother's rich alto vibrating against her cheek. She could also feel Maggie's heartbeat, slow and steady, calming.
"When you left, and Dad had his heart attack, we nearly lost this place." Maggie felt Jo hold her breath and knew her words were hurting. Get it out there, Maggie. "Your father had a lot of anger, but it wasn't all about you, Josie. It was a lot of things frustration with the banks, wool prices, the weather ... all of it. But it all got focused on you because you were the one thing Dad felt he could have some influence over. But you proved him wrong on that when you left the way you did."
"God, I am so sorry," Jo whispered hoarsely.
"Shhhhhh. We all made mistakes, love. Your father blamed himself a lot and probably I blamed myself. But there were some positives to come out of it, especially once we'd heard from you and knew you were okay."
Maggie turned her head and kissed the top of her daughter's head. "Oh yes. For a start your father learned to delegate some of the work around here. That's something I'd been nagging him about for years. More importantly, it made him realize that there might be a life beyond this station."
Jo lifted her head and looked at her mother.
"Beyond ... you mean?"
Maggie nodded. "I mean we're not getting any younger Josie. And this place isn't getting any easier, or, god knows, any more profitable to run. Your father was born here, was brought up to believe this farm was everything. When you left, he found out there are more important things than working day in, day out for not much reward." She smiled wearily. "Believe it or not, that's probably going to be a good thing in the long run."
Jo pulled away and flopped backwards down onto the bed. She couldn't help smiling as she found herself gazing up at the fluorescent stars and planets stickers she'd attached to the ceiling sometime in her dim, dark, past. And now for the 64 million dollar question.
"And how does he feel about me being gay, Mum?" she asked quietly.
Maggie sighed. I wish I knew. From the time I told him to this moment, he hasn't said one word about it.
"Well, you know your father, Josie. He doesn't exactly talk a lot about what he's thinking or feeling. And it's only been a week." She didn't know what else to say, so instead she just rested a hand on her daughter's thigh, listening to the wheels in Jo's brain spinning.
"In other words he's not too keen on the concept and doesn't know how to say so without getting pissed off about it," Jo theorized. Suddenly there was a hard ball of apprehension in the pit of her stomach.
"I'm not going to lie to you, bloss," Maggie replied. "I don't know how he's going to react. You're both probably going to have to be very patient with him. He's an old-fashioned man."
Jo snorted, memories of beating her teenage head against her father's intractability suddenly very fresh in her mind.
"Where is he?"
"The north-west back paddock, fixing a bore pump," Maggie replied.
Jo pushed herself up and grinned rakishly at her mother.
"Did it really need fixing?"
Maggie just laughed and patted Jo's knee.
"It's good to have you home, kiddo."
Cadie scooped her Akubra off the kitchen table and jammed it on her head as she stepped out of the homestead's back door. The heat hit her full on as she walked into the sunlight. To her left was a large water tank nestled against the wall, its sides covered in ivy. Cadie walked around the tank and out the gate in the white fence that surrounded the garden. The contrast was immediate as her booted feet scuffed through the orange dust that covered the hard-packed earth.
The blonde stood for a moment, circling in one spot as she sized up her options. To the west of the homestead lay a couple of worker's cottages, and beyond them again, other buildings that included a stable and a wire pen which looked to be currently uninhabited. Cadie decided the lure of saying hello to some animals had the most appeal.
She tried not to be too anxious about the conversation going on in the house. Somehow I don't think Maggie is going to be biggest problem, she mused as her footsteps took her along the well-worn path past the cottages. I wonder when Mr Madison will be home.
The stables were dilapidated, but serviceable, and Cadie guessed that buildings had to be close to collapse before any precious resources were spent fixing them. As she approached, three horses meandered towards her from different parts of the stable corral. Two were chestnuts and one, the mare, a palomino. Cadie climbed up onto the top rail of the metal fence and swung her legs over. She settled herself onto the rail as the two chestnuts approached. Both wuffled against her legs, the young colt reaching higher to nudge against the blonde's shoulder.
"Hello there," she said softly, rubbing the back of her hand against the soft sensitive end of the colt's nose. "Aren't you a handsome boy?" The other chestnut, an older male, picked at her shoelaces. "Yes, hello, so are you." Cadie chuckled as the pair vied for her attention, while the mare she guessed the pale golden beauty was mother to the two boys hung back cautiously. The horses looked well-fed and cared for despite the hard times Cadie knew the Madisons were living through. Somehow that made her feel less anxious about Jo's father. He treats animals well, that has to be a good thing, she thought.
"I'm sorry, guys, I didn't think to bring you any treats," she said as the two young horses nudged and nuzzled her in a quest for food. "Tomorrow, I promise." Cadie reached out and stroked both animals between the eyes. Reluctantly, the pair moved away and Cadie found herself eye-to-eye with the gorgeous palomino.
"Hello, beautiful," she murmured. The mare whickered softly and cautiously walked forward until she was within arm's reach of the blonde. Cadie resisted the urge to touch, though, preferring to let the mare get comfortable with her first. Large, caramel eyes blinked at her, sizing her up. "Are you going to say hello?" Cadie kept her voice low and gentle.
The mare snuffled tentatively against her thigh, then, seemingly satisfied, moved one step closer and gently head butted Cadie's shoulder.
"Well, hello to you too, madam," she answered, offering an upturned palm for the horse to mouth. Cadie grinned, loving the smell and feel of the large animal. "I wonder if you were around when Jo-Jo was a kid." The mare was definitely old enough, she thought, taking in the mature lines and experienced twinkle in the brown eyes. "Bet you could tell me a story or two."
The mare huffed against her shirt in response and Cadie laughed gently.
"Yeah, I'm sure." She rested her cheek against the big horse's muzzle, breathing in the unmistakable horse smells. The mare tolerated her touch patiently and Cadie closed her eyes for a few moments. It's been a long day. And still a way to go.
Cadie spent a solid half-hour visiting with the horses. She had jumped down into the corral and walked towards the stable, her new-found friends meandering after her hopefully. The interior of the building was clean, if a little rough and each stall had fresh feed and water, confirming her previous feeling that the animals had high priority.
She had found a curry-comb hanging on a nail and pulled it down, immediately attracting the mare who whickered softly and tossed her head.
"Oh ho, are you trying to tell me something, madam?" she laughed as the horse nudged at her, lipping the comb in her hand. "Okay, okay, I can take a hint."
Slowly Cadie began working the comb over the pale, smooth coat, the action bringing back a lot of memories. Her childhood had been filled with days spent doing just exactly this. The private boarding school in which she had spent her teenage years had a stable of five horses and Cadie had spent many a happy hour in equine company. She hadn't ridden in a long time but the prospect of going out with Jo some time in the next few days was definitely something to be relished.
"How does that feel, hmmmmm?" she murmured as the mare stood quietly for her. She worked her way down the tall, strong back, following the lines of muscle and sinew. When Cadie was done she patted the mare's neck gently and got a friendly snuffle in return. "Better?" The horse nodded. "Yeah, I thought so."
Cadie walked back outside, the mare happily following. Soon the two geldings fell into step behind their mother as Cadie wandered down the middle of the dusty corral.
"What do you think guys?" she asked, turning and stopping in front of the horses. "Think I've given Jo-Jo enough time to thrash things out with her mom?" The four-footed trio was predictably silent on the matter and Cadie looked around pensively, lost in her own thoughts. She tucked her hands into her back pockets and stood casually in the red dust. She was anxious about Jo, she was aware. "Got to let them do the talking though," she muttered to herself. With a quick shake of her head she made her decision, heading for the metal fence and clambering back up and over. She glanced back at the horses and gave them a grin. "Don't worry, I'll be back," she called out. "And I'll bring treats next time, I promise."
Cadie walked towards the workers cottages, past a small stand of tall, gnarled gum trees that provided a meager amount of shade. For the first time she noticed a dog curled up in the cool gloom at the base of the largest tree. Curious, and always a sucker for an animal, Cadie turned her footsteps towards the dog. She was brought up short when the blue kelpie uncurled himself in a flash and came charging out at her, barking loudly and teeth bared.
"Whooooooaaaaaa!" yelped Cadie. She knew enough not to run, but found herself backpedaling anyway in the face of the small bundle of ferocity. The dog barreled to a halt, front legs stiff, hackles raised. He growled loudly enough for a dog twice his size and Cadie held her hands out in front of her, palms up.
It didn't do much to soothe the beast, however, and Cadie was beginning to wonder how she was going to retreat without suffering a savaging.
"That's a workin' dog, girlie, not for pettin'," came a gravelly voice from behind her right shoulder. Cadie glanced that way quickly, not wanting to lose eye contact with the angry dog for too long. A wiry, bowlegged man sauntered towards her from the cottage, wiping his hands on an oily rag, which he proceeded to tuck into the back pocket of his soiled jeans.
Is this David Madison? Cadie wondered, not seeing any resemblance to Jo in the hard-bitten man coming her way.
"Do you think you could call him off?" Cadie asked. The dog hadn't moved from his aggressive stance and every time Cadie tried to move one way or the other, he shifted to block her path.
"He's just a big coward, nothin' to worry about," the man said bluntly. "Just give 'im a kick and he'll bugger off."
Cadie shook her head, hoping like hell this abrupt man wasn't her father-in-law.
"I'd rather not, actually," she muttered, disconcerted by the dog's behavior. Usually she had the best of relationships with animals but she'd never encountered a dog as tense as this one. But that doesn't mean I'm going to kick him just to get my way.
"Tch, what's the matter with you, girl?" the man muttered. He stepped between Cadie and the dog and swung out viciously with a booted foot before she could protest. The point of his toe caught the dog on the shoulder and the canine crumpled into a yelping heap. "G'on, get out of here, ya bastard!" the man shouted. He pulled his leg back for another swing at the whimpering, cowering dog, but he hadn't counted on a certain feisty blonde.
"You asshole!" Cadie yelled as she grabbed the man's drawn-back foot and twisted hard. She caught him with all his momentum moving forward and the maneuver flipped him over into the dirt where he sprawled awkwardly.
"What the bloody hell do you think you're doing, woman?"
Jo and her mother emerged arm in arm from her bedroom and headed back to the kitchen.
"Want to help me get dinner on?" Maggie asked, smiling at her daughter.
"Sure," Jo replied amiably. "What do you need me to do?"
Her mother unhooked her arm from Jo's elbow and headed for one of the drawers set into the counter near the sink. She opened it and pulled out a potato peeler. With a grin she tossed it at Jo.
"Spuds," she said.
Jo caught the peeler and laughed. "Some things never change," she said. "You keeping them in the same place as usual?"
"Bottom of the pantry, yes," Maggie confirmed.
"How many for dinner?"
"Six," she replied. "We four, plus Jack and Hughie."
Jo straightened from where she had bent down to pull the potatoes out from the sack under the bottom shelf of the pantry.
"Hughie?" She cast her mind back, trying to figure out why that name sounded so familiar. "You don't mean that little aboriginal kid who used to come out on the weekends with his dad?"
Maggie chuckled. "That little kid is 23 now, Josie," she said as she pulled out pots and pans from one of the cupboards. "You remember his mum died when he was just a baby?" Jo nodded. "Well, his father finally drank himself to death when Hughie was about 15. Your dad ran into Hughie in town one day and the kid looked half-starved. He's worked out here with us ever since."
"Wow," Jo murmured. She bent down again and scooped more potatoes out. "My brain is spinning out a bit," she admitted. "Everything seems the same I mean look." She pointed at a large, gaily colored metal tin, sitting on the pantry shelf. "You're still using the same tin I used to raid for biscuits when I was a kid." She ran her fingers over the horses and dogs that covered the cool surface, then pried the lid off. Jo laughed when she saw the contents. Tim Tams. She still keeps the Tim Tams in here. She fished out one of the chocolate covered treats.
"Same biscuits," her mother laughed from across the room as she watched Jo happily crunching.
"Mmmmmm. That's what I'm talking about," she said around a sweet mouthful. "So much has happened to all of us. But it looks like nothing has changed." She used her shirt to carry the potatoes over to the sink and tipped them out onto the draining board.
"Except for my grey hairs," Maggie said.
Jo looked over at the familiar long ponytail, which was indeed streaked more grey than ebony. She smiled.
"It suits you."
Maggie snorted. "Looking old suits me? Thanks," she said dryly.
"You don't look old," Jo protested as she started to wash the dirt off the potatoes. "You look ..." The hairs on the back of Jo's neck stood up suddenly and she was moving towards the back door, even before Maggie could open her mouth to ask what was wrong.
"What the ...?" Maggie dried her hands off on a tea-towel before following her running daughter out the door.
Jo emerged into the sunlight at a sprint. One part of her brain told her that she'd heard Cadie yell, but her legs told her that she'd started moving before that. What's up with that? she wondered, even as she vaulted the garden fence and headed for the two figures near the cottages. Uh-oh.
"What the bloody hell do you think you're doing, woman?" the man on the ground was yelling as Cadie stood over him. The blonde was balling and unballing her fists in barely controlled fury as Jo came to a skidding halt next to her.
"What happened?" she asked breathlessly, taking in the angry man and the whimpering dog.
"This asshole please God, don't make it be her father kicked the dog just to get him out of the way," Cadie shouted, adrenaline still coursing through her body and making her shake with anger. "How would you like it, you piece of " She felt a strong arm slide around her waist and pull her back a little.
"Easy, Tonto," a deep, rich voice murmured in her ear. "He's not gonna do any more damage today."
Cadie let out a long ragged breath, realizing Jo was right and she was in danger of acting as big an ass as the man had. "Okay," she breathed. She placed her hand on top of the one Jo had wrapped around her. "You can let me go now."
She could almost feel Jo smiling. The strong hand under hers patted her belly gently and then Cadie felt it withdraw. The blonde decided to ignore the man completely and instead she walked over to the dog, which had taken the opportunity to crawl painfully back into the shade of the tree. Cadie approached slowly, murmuring quiet words of reassurance. This time the dog showed no signs of aggression, just whimpering as the woman came within reaching distance.
"It's okay sweetie, I just want to make sure you're okay," she said quietly, extending a hand, palm up, for the dog to sniff. He did, eventually giving her fingers a tentative lick of acceptance. "Okay, that's the way," she crooned. Gently she probed the dog's shoulder, carefully stretching out the leg and moving it through the full range of motion. "Nothing broken, boy," she reassured him, looking into big brown eyes that were now all trust and doggy faith. "Friends, huh?" She scratched his ears and gave him one last pat before she pushed herself up and turned away.
Jo watched her lover's gentle ministrations with a soft smile. She is such a tenderheart, she thought affectionately. Her smile faded as she turned her gaze back on the man. He scrambled to his feet and brushed the dust off his jeans. Jo felt her mother come up behind her.
"Who are you?" she asked the man.
He ignored the question, looking instead from daughter to mother and back again. "No need for me to ask you that," he muttered.
"Jo this is Jack Collingwood, our foreman," Maggie said, her hackles once again on edge thanks to the rat-faced man she'd long ago decided she didn't like. "Jack this is my daughter, Jossandra."
"I'd say nice to meet you, but I'm not so sure," Jo said bluntly. "Do you usually go around kicking animals, Mr Collingwood?"
The man's face reddened again, flushed with anger and humiliation. "The bastard was having a go at the young lady, there," he objected. "Someone had to do something."
Cadie stepped back into the conversation. "He was just protecting his territory from a stranger. That's only natural. All you had to do was call him off."
"That beast don't listen to me, girl. A swift kick's all he understands."
Jo leaned forward to make a point. "Then you don't have him too well trained, do you?" she said. "Perhaps you need to rethink your methods."
Collingwood stepped forward one pace, getting up in Jo's face.
"Who do you think you are?" he growled.
"That's enough!" Maggie intervened, letting the rarely-used authority she held over Jack show in her tone. "Jack, where's Hughie?"
Collingwood flicked a glance in Maggie's direction, taking in her glowering look and hands on hips posture. Damn her, she'll be telling the boss all about this, he realized. He backed off a step from the tall young woman in front of him. You haven't heard the last from me, bitch. "He's feeding the orphaned lambs," he growled out loud.
"Perhaps you'd better go help him," Maggie suggested pointedly. "Dinner will be in a couple of hours."
Without another word Collingwood nodded and stepped away, holding Jo's steely gaze for long seconds before he turned his back on them and headed towards the sheep pen.
Jo let her breath out slowly. She looked at her mother.
Maggie snorted. "I've never liked that man," she agreed. "But your father says he's a good worker and he can rely on him." She shrugged her shoulders. "It's hard to find men willing to work these days."
"I'm sorry, Maggie," Cadie said quietly. "I didn't mean to cause any trouble."
Jo's mother smiled and stepped forward, hooking her arm through Cadie's as they started to walk back toward the homestead.
"Don't you worry about it, dearie," she said breezily. "I like a woman who stands up for herself and stray animals. To be honest, I've been wanting to knock that idiot on his backside from the moment I met him."
They all laughed and Jo fell in behind her mother and her partner, raising an eyebrow at the rapport the two women had already developed. I'm in trouble here, she thought wryly. The best kind of trouble.