Jemima is lying under her bed, elbows digging into the threadbare carpet, colouring.
She isn’t doing her best work. For one thing, it is quite dark under there. And she doesn’t really care for the colouring book. It’s made from flimsy, yellowish paper, it smells funny, and it’s a bit young for her. It’s full of pictures of ducks. Ducks splashing happily in ponds. Ducks waddling along with rows of ducklings behind them.
The old lady who lives in the unit below, Mrs Schimmelbeck, gave her the colouring book. Mrs Schimmelbeck often gives Jemima little duck-related presents, because of her name. Just like Jemima Puddle-Duck, from the Beatrix Potter stories, Mrs Schimmelbeck says. Jemima doesn’t like those stories much, and she doesn’t really like ducks either. They have beady eyes and they poo in the very same water in which they have to dive down and find food. Jemima disapproves.
She’d thanked Mrs Schimmelbeck politely for the colouring book, anyway. She knows you have to be polite when grown ups pay attention to you, and Mrs Schimmelbeck is kind and means well. That’s what Mum says, when Jemima complains that she doesn’t even like ducks, or that Mrs Schimmelbeck’s flat smells like cabbage and mothballs. “Mrs Schimmelbeck is kind, sweetheart, and she means well.” Mrs Schimmelbeck comes over to sit with Jemima on Wednesdays, when Mum has the evening shift at the hospital. Mum says she doesn’t know what she’d do without Mrs Schimmelbeck.
Jemima finishes colouring the bright yellow rain bonnet adorning the grinning duck in her picture, and neatly zippers her pencil case. She flops over onto her back and sighs, staring up at the slats of her bed.
It is Wednesday today. Mum is getting ready for work. Soon, Mrs Schimmelbeck will arrive. She will creak and wheeze her way up the stairs. She will bring a quilted bag with her knitting needles and a half-finished scarf or lap blanket. Or if Jemima is unlucky, a scratchy jumper, intended for her. “Hello, Miss Puddle-Duck,” she’ll greet Jemima, beaming. “Lovely weather for ducks, isn’t it?” Mrs Schimmelbeck always says that. You’re supposed to say it when it’s raining, but she says it to Jemima no matter what the weather is like.
Mrs Schimmelbeck will find a game show on the telly, and she’ll sit and knit while she calls out the answers. Mrs Schimmelbeck is good at game shows. She always guesses the answer first on Wheel of Fortune, even the really tricky ones where you have to figure out phrases. “It’s the cat that got the cream!” she’ll shout at the screen after a few spins, as the hapless contestant contemplates buying a vowel.
“You should go on that show,” Jemima once told her. “You’re heaps better at it than any of the people they have on.”
“Oh, go on with you,” she’d said. “They wouldn’t want a silly old thing like me.”
Jemima saw her smile a bit, though.
“Jemima! Mrs S is here.” The sound of her mother’s voice.
“Jemmy? Where are you, hon?”
The door to her bedroom opens. Jemima turns her head to the side, and sees two pairs of feet and ankles. One, clad in thick pantyhose through which blueish veins are still visible, ending in a pair of worn brown leather shoes. They’re the kind of shoes favoured by older ladies everywhere – slip on, low heeled, sold in pharmacies.
The other wears dark blue cotton trousers and flat-soled lace ups. They could be a nurse’s feet, but they’re not. Her mum wanted to be a nurse once, but she’s a cleaner. Bathrooms and public amenity areas, levels one and two, St Margaret’s.
Jemima braces a foot against the wall and pushes, sliding out from under the bed like a mechanic poised to deliver bad news about a carburettor.
“What were you doing under there, little duckling?” Mrs Schimmelbeck gives a throaty chuckle.
Jemima shrugs as she gets to her feet. Mum plants a distracted kiss on the top of her head.
“I’m running a bit late, kiddo, I’ve got to go. Be a good girl for Mrs Schimmelbeck, won’t you?”
Jemima and Mrs Schimmelbeck follow Mum out to the flat’s small living area. Mum grabs her keys and a plastic takeaway container with a sandwich in it, dashing out the door with a hasty goodbye.
Jemima and Mrs Schimmelbeck look at each other for a moment. They hear Mum’s Datsun cough into life below, then the noise fading as she pulls out onto the street. “Well, here we are then,” Mrs Schimmelbeck says, breaking the silence. “What shall we have for dinner tonight, Miss Puddle-Duck?”
This is a game they play every week. “Hmm,” says Jemima, pretending to consider carefully. “I think we should start with a dozen oysters. Natural, not Kilpatrick.”
“With lemon wedges,” Mrs Schimmelbeck adds.
“Yes. And then perhaps rack of lamb?”
“Ooh, yes,” Mrs Schimmelbeck approves. “With a parsley crust, and little new potatoes.”
“And for dessert, berry cheesecake?” Jemima suggests. “Or maybe chocolate mousse.”
Mrs S ponders for a moment. “I do like berries,” she says. “But I can’t say no to chocolate mousse. Perhaps we could have some berry sauce with the mousse and have the best of both worlds.”
“Deal,” Jemima nods.
When dinnertime rolls around, Jemima has chicken nuggets with oven chips. Mrs Schimmelbeck has tinned sardines on toast. They eat from Stable Tables on their laps, while Mrs S thrashes the carry-over champ on Sale of the Century.
“Whatcha reading, Playschool?”
Jemima keeps her head down and quickens her step. Billy O’Carroll is the terror of Grade Four at Ridgeway Road Primary, but he is also lazy. Maybe he won’t bother catching up to her.
While Mrs Schimmelbeck associates her name with the old-timey Jemima Puddle-Duck, everyone her age associates it with the pigtailed ragdoll on Play School. Not for the first time, Jemima wishes Mum could have just named her Rebecca or Kylie.
A marble pings painfully off the back of her head, and Jemima stumbles and chokes down a yell.
“Arksed you a question,” Billy says, lumbering up beside her. “Don’t be fuckin’ rude.” He steps into her path, blocking her way.
Jemima looks up. Two other boys fall in behind him. One, Andrew Kendrick, is one of his regular cronies and playground enforcers. The other, Naveen Krishnan, is not. He’s a quietly spoken kid. Smart. The type generally more likely to be picked on by Billy and his crew than to hang around with them. Obviously something’s shifted, though.
She wonders for a moment why he’d want to be mates with Billy, but of course, she knows. Ridgeway Road is just a smaller version of real life. The strong survive. Given the opportunity to join Billy’s band of morons at the top of the food chain, maybe she’d do the same.
“It’s just a book,” she says pleadingly, inwardly cursing her timid, halting voice. “From the library.”
The school library is Jemima’s sanctuary. It’s comfortable, quiet, and hardly anyone ever goes there unless they have a class library session. The librarian, Ms Ellings, is not quite what you’d expect from a librarian – she’s loud and enthusiastic, and doesn’t take any crap, so none of you little buggers even try me, alright. But she’s also kind. She keeps the library open instead of going to the staff room to eat lunch with the teachers. She knows that the handful of kids who like to come there, do so because they need to.
Billy snatches the book out of her hands and rips the front cover off in one smooth, brutal motion. He follows this up by pulling a chunk of pages out of the middle, tearing them in half and in half again, then dramatically flinging his hands above his head and letting the fragments float to the ground around them.
“Oops. Guess you’ll have some explaining to do. That mental old cow in the library’s not going to be very happy with you.” A self-satisfied grin spreads across his piggy-eyed face.
Andrew hoots sycophantically, and grinds the book’s cover into the dusty concrete footpath with the heel of his sneaker. “Suck shit, Cox-head.”
Having a contentious surname when you already have a memorable first name just proves there’s no justice in the world, Jemima reflects, also not for the first time. She doesn’t know why she even has to keep that name. The man it came from had already left by the time she was born. Why couldn’t she just be an Evans, like Mum?
She looks at Naveen. He’s been kind to her in the past. Even had a bit of a crush on her last year, she’s pretty sure. He meets her eyes, but there’s nothing apologetic in his expression. Better you than me, his unflinching gaze says. The sense of betrayal stings worse than the spot where the marble hit her.
His work done, Billy leers unpleasantly at Jemima before tossing what’s left of the book at her feet and swaggering away, his henchmen in tow. None of them give her a backward glance.
Jemima slides her bag off her shoulder and kneels on the patchy grass of the nature strip, gathering up torn pieces of the book’s pages from the pavement and piling them haphazardly by the kerb. She might be able to sticky tape them back together. Then a van speeds past, and the breeze from its slipstream scatters the fragments across the road. A few of them land in a pothole filled with dirty water.
Jemima sinks back onto her haunches and lets out a strangled sob. She swipes angrily at her eyes as tears squeeze out the corners. She shoves the remains of the book and its mangled cover into her schoolbag and slings it back over her shoulders. She is just about to turn back towards home when she senses movement in her peripheral vision.
It’s Mrs Schimmelbeck. She is wearing an ugly floral blouse and a grey tweed skirt that looks too warm for the day. She has a faux-leather wheeled shopping buggy propped on the footpath beside her.
“Alright, ducky?” she asks quietly. “Had a bit of bother on the way home?”
Jemima nods mutely.
“I haven’t had the best day myself,” Mrs Schimmelbeck confides. “Mum on till five, is she?”
Jemima nods again.
“Tell you what, then. I’ve just bought a bottle of lemon squash up at the shops, and I made some lamingtons earlier today. Why don’t you stop in with me for a bit, and we’ll have ourselves a nice little afternoon tea while we wait for her to get home?”
Jemima manages a small smile. “That would be good.”
“Was that man your husband?” Jemima asks, licking chocolate icing and flakes of coconut from her fingers. She’s looking at a slightly yellowed, black-and-white photograph of a young man with light coloured hair and a cheeky smile. He has his arm around the shoulder of a pretty girl in an old-fashioned party dress, who Jemima is just able to recognise as a much younger Mrs Schimmelbeck. The photograph sits in a carved wooden frame, on a crowded sideboard in Mrs S’s living room. She’s never noticed it before.
“What’s that, love?” Mrs Schimmelbeck peers in from the kitchenette, and sees where she’s looking. “Oh, heavens. No, that’s Clem. He was my big brother.” She lifts the framed photo carefully out of its spot among porcelain trinkets and cut crystal dishes, and hands it to Jemima so she can have a closer look.
“Isn’t he alive anymore?” Jemima’s not sure if she should feel bad for mentioning the photograph.
“No, he’s long gone now, love.” She extends a finger and traces it fondly along the line of his face, behind the dusty glass. “He was… well, he was never the same after he came back from the war,” she says quietly. “He died when he was only in his thirties.”
“That’s about how old Mum is now,” Jemima says. “Thirty-three, she is.”
Mrs S nods sadly. “Yes, it’s far too young to be gone from the world, isn’t it? Left behind a lovely wife who thought the world of him, and little boy who was too young to even remember him after he’d gone.” She pulls a crumpled Kleenex from the sleeve of her blouse, and wipes the frame clean of its coating of dust before placing it carefully back in place on the sideboard.
“So didn’t you ever get married, then?” Jemima asks curiously. She’s never thought much about what Mrs Schimmelbeck’s life might have been like as a young woman, but that pretty, smiling girl in the photograph must have had boys interested in her. And surely there must have been a Mr Schimmelbeck, if she’s a Mrs.
“Yes, I did, for a time,” Mrs Schimmelbeck replies. “It didn’t last.”
“Why not?” Jemima knows it’s probably rude to ask so many questions, but suddenly she’s curious about this elderly woman she knows so well, and yet not at all.
“We didn’t meet until we were both a bit older,” Mrs S begins. “I was in my early twenties when Clem left for the war. My parents had a farm out in the Adelaide Hills, and with him gone they needed my help. I was busy working and my mind was taken up with worrying about him overseas, and I suppose finding a husband wasn’t really on my mind.”
Mrs Schimmelbeck motions Jemima toward the couch. It’s covered in a brown, velvety fabric and embroidered with cabbage roses. She sits in silence for a couple of minutes before continuing her story, lost in thought.
“By the time Clem came home, I was only focused on him. He had what they called shell-shock, you see,” she tells Jemima. “It means he was so distressed by everything he went through in the war that his mind wasn’t right anymore. He couldn’t even speak about it.” Mrs Schimmelbeck’s hands fidget with a pleat in her skirt. “So many of our lads didn’t come home at all.”
“Anyway,” she says, taking a deep breath. “The long and short of it is that all the boys went off to war, and I was left behind, the best years of my girlhood gone. There were precious few eligible bachelors about, and suddenly I was approaching thirty and left on the shelf.”
“It probably sounds a bit silly by today’s standards, Jemima. Eighties women don’t have to worry if they’re not married off by twenty-five. But that’s the way it was, then.” She shrugs her shoulders. “It wasn’t the end of the world the way I saw it, but my poor mother was beside herself. Eventually a shopkeeper from the next town over showed an interest in me. He was well past forty and walked with a limp, but beggars can’t be choosers, as my mother kindly put it.”
Mrs Schimmelbeck picks up her knitting bag, pulling out a half-finished garment in navy wool. Her needles click as she continues her story. “He wasn’t a bad husband, Jemima. He wasn’t what you’d call affectionate, but he wasn’t unkind. We had a child together, a son.” Here she pauses.
“What was his name?” Jemima asks, to fill the silence.
“Josef,” Mrs Schimmelbeck replies, smiling. “Oh, he was a dear little thing.” She knits in silence for a few moments, sliding stitches along the needles. “But he wasn’t well, you see. We didn’t realise for the first few months. But he wasn’t growing properly. The doctors told us he probably wouldn’t live past a few years old.”
A single tear trickles down her lined cheek. She lays her knitting down in her lap. Hesitantly, Jemima reaches out, her small texta-stained fingers curling around Mrs Schimmelbeck’s arthritic ones. Mrs Schimmelbeck gives her a smile.
“I’m sorry, Jemima. I shouldn’t be telling you all this really,” she says, dabbing at her cheek with the sleeve of her blouse. “It’s just that I don’t get the chance to talk about him often, and I like to talk about him. I still miss him, love, all these years later. I adored him. And so did Hermann, that’s why he took it so hard. That boy was the light of his life, and when they told us there was something wrong with him, Hermann didn’t cope,” she says. “He couldn’t bear it. He wanted to just send him off to a home, like he’d never existed. But I wouldn’t allow it. Whether I was going to get another week or another year or another ten years with my son, I wanted every minute of it. So he up and left,” she says simply.
Jemima is almost speechless at the injustice of it. “He just left you and baby Josef all by yourselves? Where did he go? What did you do?”
“I don’t really know where he went, ducky. He took off for a few weeks, and when he came back, we were gone. I took Josef home with me. My Dad had died by that stage, and Clem was in charge of the farm.” Mrs Schimmelbeck has picked her knitting back up. Jemima watches her expertly work cables into her pattern, twisting needles this way and that.
“I went back to helping with the farm work, and Clem and his wife, Annie, were happy enough to have us there. After everything Clem had been through, whatever people had to say about his husbandless sister and her fatherless child was of little concern to him,” she says.
“Joey passed just before he turned three, in the end,” Mrs Schimmelbeck adds softly. “I sent word to Hermann, but he didn’t come to the funeral.”
Jemima lets a silence deepen around them, punctuated only by the clicking of Mrs S’s knitting needles and the ticking of the wall clock. She imagines Mrs Schimmelbeck saying goodbye to her little boy, and feels a lump rise in her throat.
It’s a knock on the door that eventually brings them out of their reverie. “Ah, I thought I might find you here,” says Mum, looking tired but happy. “Thanks for taking in my little waif again, Edie. I hope she wasn’t any trouble.
“She never is,” says Mrs Schimmelbeck, patting Jemima’s shoulder. “Oh, I almost forgot!” She shuffles out of the room, and returns a minute later with a small parcel, wrapped in plain white butcher’s paper, which she hands to Jemima. “I found this in the Brotherhood shop this morning, and I just had to bring her home for you.”
It’s a porcelain figurine – a duck, of course, wearing a pink coat and carrying a lacy folded parasol under one wing.
“Thank you,” Jemima says, slipping her arms around Mrs Schimmelbeck’s waist and giving her a squeeze. Mrs Schimmelbeck looks surprised, but pleased.
At home, Jemima puts the duck on her bedside table, next to a picture of Mum holding her in hospital when she was a baby.
When Mrs Schimmelbeck comes over on Wednesday afternoon, rain is coming down heavily outside the flat’s front window.
“Lovely weather for ducks,” Jemima greets her, throwing open the door to the landing with a flourish.
“It is, isn’t it?” Mrs S laughs. “Your poor Mum, though, having to go out to work on a rotten night like this.”
“Doesn’t worry me,” says Mum cheerfully, coming in from the bathroom. “Fewer people come out for visiting hours when the weather’s bad, so everywhere’s quieter and it’s much easier to get my work done. It’s a shame for the patients, but it’s good for me.”
Mum picks up her handbag. “Are you sure you’re alright to be here tonight?” she asks Mrs Schimmelbeck.
“Of course I am, I’m fit as a fiddle!” Mrs Schimmelbeck scoffs. “Off you go to work, and don’t you worry. Jemima Puddle-Duck and I will be just fine.”
Mum gives Jemima a bear hug and squeezes Mrs Schimmelbeck’s hand gratefully before heading out the door.
Jemima doesn’t wait for Mrs Schimmelbeck to pull out her knitting or put on the TV.
“Mrs Schimmelbeck? What happened after Josef died? What did you do then?”
Mrs Schimmelbeck looks mildly surprised, but not upset. “Oh… well, I didn’t do much of anything at first, except keep on with what I’d been doing and grieve for my boy. But it wasn’t too long after that that we lost Clem.” Mrs Schimmelbeck’s lips make a thin line, and she closes her eyes for a moment.
“After that, it felt like there were too many hard memories tied up in the farm, Jemima. There was just us girls left – Mum, Annie and I – and Clem and Annie’s little boy, Christopher. Mum was getting on in age, Annie had her lad to care for, and I couldn’t keep the place going by myself. It’s hard on a body, farm work. We sold the land and split the proceeds between us. Annie moved into Adelaide with Chris, and Mum and I came here.”
“And you never had another baby?” Jemima asks.
“No. I never married again, and I didn’t have any more children. I took care of Mum until she died, and I had a good career in the end. I got a lot of satisfaction from that.”
“Career? What did you do?”
“I trained as a schoolteacher, love. I taught up at Ridgeway Road for years. I was the Principal by the end of it.” She smiles. “If you look at the board outside the school office, you’ll see my name on it.”
Jemima wonders what it would have been like to be taught by Mrs Schimmelbeck. She thinks she’d have liked it. Her teacher, Mr Burton, is alright. But she wishes she were in the other Grade 3, Miss Milano’s class. Mr Burton’s class is where they put all the naughtiest kids, because he’s good at keeping them in line. He takes them outside most days for games – the troublemakers like that, it means they don’t have to do work and they can try to piff balls at the nerdy kids. Mr Burton hardly ever reads stories to the class, but Miss Milano does every afternoon.
Mrs Schimmelbeck has pulled out her knitting, and is click-clacking away again. “You know Jemima, I got to know all kinds of children when I was teaching,” she says. “Most were well behaved and treated each other well, but every so often, you’d get a nasty piece of work, a real little bully.”
Jemima doesn’t say anything, but she thinks, well, there’s plenty of them going around these days.
“I’ve found that the thing about bullies is, they pick on those they see as weak, you see,” Mrs Schimmelbeck says. “The ones they think won’t fight back. Because if the others see them squashing down the softer ones, it keeps everyone scared of them. Nobody ever challenges them. But sometimes,” she continues, not looking away from her knitting, “Sometimes, if a quieter child can find her courage and stand up to them, it gives them a right shock. They’re not expecting it.”
Jemima sits quietly for a few moments, watching Mrs Schimmelbeck knit a cuff in a ribbed pattern. Knit two, purl two. Click click click.
“What if it doesn’t work?” she asks eventually.
“Well, there are things children can do, if they’re being treated badly,” says Mrs Schimmelbeck. “Talk to a teacher, for example, or their parents. But you’d be surprised how effective it can be simply to show strength.”
She slides a sideways glance at Jemima. “And I probably shouldn’t say this to you, but don’t be afraid to fight dirty,” she chuckles. “That what bullies do, they pick on weaknesses, on whoever’s different. The child who wears spectacles, or the one with a birthmark, or the one with red hair. But there’s bound to be things they’re scared of and ashamed about too. It’s not nice to use people’s foibles against them, of course. But if somebody else starts in on you first and you need to defend yourself… well, you make sure you use every weapon available to you.” She gives a small, satisfied nod.
“Now, hold out your arm please, Jemima.” Mrs Schimmelbeck holds up the sleeve against her arm. “Perfect length,” she judges. “It’s a tiny bit long now, but you’re growing so quickly. I’ll cast this off, knit one more, and then I’ll only have to stitch it all together and put some buttons on, and that’s your winter cardy all ready,” she says, pleased. “I did it in navy, because then it’ll go with your uniform and you can wear for school.” Jemima smiles back at her.
“Now, what shall we have for dinner tonight?”
It’s a warm, still afternoon, and Jemima’s mind is wandering from the worded maths problems she’s supposed to be working on. She’s good at fractions, but just now she can’t concentrate on how many pieces Joe, Jessica and Jane’s mother needs to cut the apples into to ensure they all get an equal number. She feels a bead of sweat trickle down her back and pushes her hair away from her damp forehead.
“Alright, bring your exercise sheets up to my desk,” says Mr Burton. The class slowly stirs to life. “We’re going to the library for the rest of the afternoon, so pack everything up now please. Chairs on tables.”
Jemima troops down the corridor to the library with her classmates. Usually she’d be pleased to spend the rest of her day in the library, but it has west-facing windows and one ineffective ceiling fan, and all she is feeling is tired and hot and cranky.
“Hi, gang!” Ms Ellings says, as the students of 4B slump into beanbags and onto the floor. She is dressed in a floaty, brightly tie-dyed ensemble with beads and tassels dangling from it. Its shades of magenta, scarlett and orange already clash, and paired with her curly red hair, she’s a one-woman visual assault.
“Today we’re going to be looking at poetry,” she announces happily. A chorus of muted groans swells around the room. “Aw, don’t be like that! Poetry is great when it’s done well. Don’t worry, I’ve found you some really good examples. I’ll read a few aloud, and you can pass some books around too and see if anything takes your fancy.”
Jemima is absorbed in a book of verse by somebody called Shel Silverstein when she finally notices the shadow looming above her. “Hurry up.”
Jemima darts a glance around the room. The entire class is watching Billy O’Carroll standing over her, and Ms Ellings and Mr Burton are nowhere to be seen. “What?” she gulps idiotically.
“I said, fucking move! Are you deaf or something? Put down your shitty little poetry book, move your arse and give me that beanbag.” Billy pokes her in the thigh with the toe of his grubby sneaker.
Jemima scrambles to her feet, her cheeks hot. She’s about to step aside and let him have the beanbag, but then she notices Billy is standing with his weight on one leg, scratching the back of his calf with his other foot. Before she really knows what she’s doing, Jemima gives him a sharp shove. Billy tumbles to the floor with a thud. The stunned expression on his face emboldens her.
“You know what?” She narrows her eyes. “If you want one of the beanbags, you can get here first. You could do with spending some more time in the library. Maybe then it wouldn’t take you half an hour to get through a Grade Two level reader,” she says, her tone scornful. A couple of shocked gasps sound from around the room. “Maybe if you’d done a bit more reading last year, you wouldn’t be repeating Grade Four.” Jemima puts her hands on her hips. Billy’s face reddens, though with embarrassment or fury, she couldn’t say.
Andrew Kendrick stands up and takes a step towards her. “You better watch ya mouth, Cox,” he says warningly.
“Or what?” Jemima replies. She’s angry now, and she doesn’t care. “Going to rip up another library book, are you? Going to bash me after school?” She looks around at all her classmates. “Any of you ever actually been beaten up by this little turd?” She asks. “Because as far as I can see, all he does is make a lot of threats and hide behind this big lump.” She looks scornfully down at Billy, who is struggling to get to his feet.
“Go ahead, you gutless wonder!” she spits at Andrew, who has gone white behind his freckles. “Why don’t you hit me? You’re so tough, aren’t you? Why don’t you show everyone how tough you are? No?”
Andrew stands there mutely, a gormless expression on his face.
Jemima turns her attention to Naveen, who is sitting at the other end of the reading corner. “How about you, then? You’re one of the tough guy gang now, aren’t you? Do you want to come up here and smack me one?” Naveen shakes his head, his eyes wide.
“Your mum works in the cafeteria at St Margaret’s, doesn’t she?” Jemima says to Naveen. “Aisha, right? She’s friends with my mum. She’s very proud of you, you know. She’s always telling people how great you are. I wonder what she’d think if she knew you were hanging around with a bunch of bullies these days?”
Jemima looks around the room, challenging each of her classmates with a stare. “Why is any of us even afraid of these losers?” she asks. “There’s nothing they can really do to us. They rely on us being scared of them, but there’s no reason to be. They’re just stupid, and mean, and cowards!”
She walks back over to Billy. Her head comes up to his chest.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she says, lifting her chin. Then she kicks him hard in the shin, sits back down in her beanbag, and picks up the poetry book.
Billy howls in pain and indignation. Someone titters. Suddenly the whole class is laughing. Like a dam bursting, tension gives way to delight and disbelief.
Ms Ellings steps back into the room, a book clutched in her hand. “Found it! Gosh, sounds like you lot are really enjoying the poetry.”
“Ms Ellings! Jemima Cox kicked me!” Billy yells, his face red and twisted, clutching at his leg.
“Did she, indeed? What on earth for?” Ms Ellings raises both eyebrows.
“I don’t know, I didn’t do nothing to her!”
“Well I find that hard to believe, Billy. Can anyone corroborate Billy’s testimony?” She scans the blank faces of 4B. Nobody says anything, not even Andrew Kendrick. Of course, most of them probably have no idea what corroborate means, thinks Jemima. Or testimony, for that matter.
“Right. Well, you can go to the sick bay for a Band-Aid if you need to, Billy. I’d advise you to stay if you can manage it, though. We’re going to read some of Robert Frost’s poems now, and they’re really quite lovely.” She claps delightedly and grins at the class. She has hot pink lipstick on her teeth.
Jemima feels like dancing down the footpath on the walk home from school. She’d been worried about repercussions, but Billy, Andrew and Naveen avoided even looking in her direction after class. They sloped out pretty much as soon as the bell rang, separately, bags slung over their shoulders.
She wants to tell Mum about her triumph, but she knows she can’t. Mum wouldn’t focus on how great it was that she took on the school bullies, she’d just get all worked up about the fact she was getting picked on in the first place, and probably demand a meeting with the principal or something.
Mrs S! She’ll understand how big a deal this is. And maybe it was her advice that helped Jemima stick up for herself, anyway.
It’s Wednesday. Mrs Schimmelbeck will be coming around later, but Jemima decides she’ll knock on her door on the way up to the flat. When she walks into the building though, the door to Mrs Schimmelbeck’s flat is already open, and she’s not in there.
Instead, Jemima sees a salt-and-pepper haired woman pottering about in Mrs Schimmelbeck’s sitting room. Jemima recognises her as Mrs Nikolaou, another neighbour, whom she doesn’t know well. Mrs Nikolaou lives on the opposite side of the building on the top level. She has two enormous grown up sons who visit each week and an almost silent husband who grows vegetables on their balcony.
Mrs Nikolaou has a small blue leather suitcase open on the couch.
“Where’s Mrs Schimmelbeck?”
The woman gives a startled jump. “Oh, it’s you, Jemima,” Mrs Nikolaou says when she recovers, in her accented English. “Edith is gone to the hospital. I am bringing her some things.” She has a grim expression on her face.
“Is she okay? What happened?”
Mrs Nikolaou regards her for a moment, frowning slightly. “She is not well,” she says simply. She bends and zippers the suitcase. “Excuse me. I must close up now.”
Jemima walks over to the sideboard and picks up the framed photograph of Mrs Schimmelbeck with her brother Clem. She opens the suitcase back up, places the photograph on top of the neatly folded clothing Mrs Nikolaou has picked out, and zips the case closed again. Mrs Nikolaou looks at her, but doesn’t say anything.
Jemima allows herself to be chivvied out of Mrs Schimmelbeck’s flat. Mrs Nikolaou locks up, and leaves through the door at the bottom of the stairwell, battered blue leather case clutched in her hand. Jemima sits down on the steps.
Mum can’t go to work that night, without Mrs Schimmelbeck there to look after Jemima.
“What happened to her?” Jemima asks. “She was fine a few days ago!”
Mum looks tired. “Oh sweetheart,” she sighs. “Mrs Schimmelbeck hasn’t been well for some time, but she’s the kind of lady that never lets on when she’s feeling bad.”
“But what’s wrong with her?” Jemima demands. “Is she going to be okay? When’s she coming home?”
Mum looks at her for a few long moments. “I don’t know when she’ll be home, baby. She has a kind of cancer, she’s been fighting it for a long time. She’s had a couple of surgeries, and the doctors have been keeping it at bay with drugs. But they told her recently that it’s back again.”
Jemima’s lower lip trembles. “Can they make it go away again?”
Mum’s eyes go squinty and she doesn’t answer for awhile. “No, my love. They can’t,” she says eventually. She is staring out the window. Jemima looks in the direction she’s looking, but all she sees is her reflection in the dark glass.
“Mrs Schimmelbeck is an elderly lady,” Mum explains. “Her poor body can’t really cope with any more surgery, and the drugs make her feel awfully sick. So she’s decided just to make the most of the time she has left.”
Jemima knows what that means. It means she’s waiting around to die. Mum hasn’t said so, but she knows.
“Can I –” Jemima swallows hard. “Can we visit her? In the hospital?”
Mum reaches across and smooths a hand across her forehead, tucking her hair behind her ear.
“We’ll see, sweetie.”
Jemima doesn’t get to visit Mrs Schimmelbeck in hospital.
Jemima never gets to visit Mrs Schimmelbeck again.
Mrs Schimmelbeck dies two days later.
Jemima helps Mum and Mrs Nikolaou to pack up her flat.
They wrap all her crystal dishes and ornaments in pages torn from old phone books, and pack them away in boxes. Jemima makes Mrs Nikolaou promise to retrieve the special photograph of Mrs Schimmelbeck and Clem, so that it can go in the coffin with her. Mrs Nikolaou’s stern expression falters for a moment, and she says Jemima is a very strange girl. She doesn’t say it in a mean way, though. She just looks sad.
Just as they are getting ready to leave, the small flat now echoey and bare except for the boxes piled in the entryway, Mrs Nikolaou pulls out something that is wedged next to the arm of the sitting room couch.
“It’s her knitting bag,” Jemima says. Then she starts to cry. She has already cried lots this week, but this time the sobs shake her whole body and she feels like she can’t get enough air. Mum pulls her onto her lap on the couch and rocks her gently. Mrs Nikolaou hovers awkwardly, tsk-ing and pacing.
When her howls of grief have given way to irregular, shuddering breaths, Jemima reaches out and takes the knitting bag from Mrs Nikolaou.
“Can I have this?”
There is a gentle tap at Jemima’s bedroom door. Mum pokes her head into the room.
“You alright, lovely?”
Jemima is sitting on the edge of her bed, Mrs Schimmelbeck’s knitting bag in her lap. She looks up at Mum. She pulls a navy blue cardigan out of the bag, tears trickling silently down her face.
“Oh, Jem.” Mum sits down next to her on the bed, cuddling her close.
“It’s for me,” Jemima chokes out. “She was making it for me, for winter. She never got to finish it.”
Mum reaches for the cardigan, and holds it up in front of them.
“Well, it looks pretty well finished to me, hon. Just needs some buttons, eh?”
She runs her hand along the front of the cardigan.
“Now, I’m no expert. But I reckon I can probably manage to stitch on a few buttons.”
Mum cups Jemima’s face in her hands, and wipes her tears aside gently with her thumbs.
“Shall we go up the street and choose some? We could grab a bite to eat at the food court after,” she suggests.
Half an hour later, they’re wandering through the aisles of Lincraft. Jemima has never been in here before. She runs her fingers over rolls of plush fabric and spools of braided cord and tasselled trim, fascinated.
The buttons are shelved in hundreds of clear plastic tubes. You have to choose the tube you want and take them up to the counter to pay for them. Mum and Jemima pull out one tube after another, sliding the buttons along the clear plastic, holding them up against the navy wool of Jemima’s cardigan.
Jemima rejects matching navy. Too boring. She quite likes some red and white ones that look a bit like peppermint lollies. She puts them aside in the ‘maybe’ pile, along with some metal ones stamped to look like flowers.
“Can I help with anything?” A smiling grey-haired shop assistant approaches. She is wearing a waistcoat with a plastic name badge that says Maureen. She has a little plastic chain attached to the arms of her glasses.
“Just looking for some nice buttons to go with this,” Mum says, holding up the cardigan.
Maureen reaches out and takes a corner of the cardigan in her hand. “Goodness, look at this cabling,” she says admiringly. “And the joining’s been done beautifully. What lovely work. Did you knit it yourself?”
“Oh, gosh no,” Mum laughs. “I’m not that talented. It was made for my daughter by a very dear friend of ours.”
Maureen smiles down at Jemima.
“Well then!” she says. “A cardigan as nice as this one deserves some very fine buttons indeed.” She kneels down and begins pulling tubes from one of the lower shelves. “Our children’s collection is mostly in these two sections here. These would go quite well with it, I think?” She hands Jemima a tube of navy buttons with white spots.
“Hmm,” Jemima says noncommittally. “They’re nice. They’re a bit plain though.”
“Ah,” Maureen nods. “You’re wanting something that makes a bit more of a statement, then?”
“I guess so?” Jemima says.
Maureen proffers another tube. These ones are shaped like white daisies with little golden centres. Jemima adds them to the maybe pile.
“Oh, look at these,” Maureen chuckles. “How cute.”
The buttons she’s looking at are made from gaudy yellow plastic. They are shaped like rubber duckies, the kind you play with the in bath. Jemima reaches for the tube.
“Mum,” she says softly. “Look.”
Mum takes the tube from her, holding them up to inspect.
“Wow. Well, those are just perfect, aren’t they? Do we have a winner, Jemmy?”
Jemima nods decisively.
“Really, these ones? Are you sure, pet?” Maureen asks, a confused look on her face.
Jemima knows the buttons are probably made for little kids. She doesn’t care.
“Yes,” she says. They’re exactly right.”
Maureen rings them up at the till, and Mum fishes in her purse for the right change. Five little yellow plastic duck buttons costs $1.25. Jemima holds the little paper bag tightly on the way home.
Mum is as good as her word, and stitches the little buttons onto the navy blue cardigan perfectly. Jemima wears it to Mrs Schimmelbeck’s funeral.
She sits next to Mum, an order of service book resting on her lap. Edith Schimmelbeck, 1917 – 1988, the cover reads, with a posed photographic portrait of Mrs Schimmelbeck as a younger woman. Older than she was in the photo with Clem, though, Jemima judges. Her eyes are sadder in this one than that girl with the bright, open face and her brother’s arm around her.
Jemima darts a glance around the little chapel. There are not many people here, she thinks sadly. She wonders if Mrs Schimmelbeck would be disappointed, if she knew only a handful of people would be here to say their final goodbyes to her. Mrs Nikolaou and her husband sit in the second row on the other side. There are a couple of older ladies sitting together towards the back, whom Jemima assumes are from Mrs Schimmelbeck’s craft group. Up the front is a man with short, greying hair, wearing a suit. He’s older than Mum, but not old. Jemima doesn’t recognise him.
The celebrant is a young man from the funeral home. He reads from prepared notes. “Edith Schimmelbeck was born Edith Mary Hall in Lenswood, South Australia in October 1917,” he begins. Jemima listens carefully as he drones his way through a dull account of Mrs Schimmelbeck’s life and achievements, stripped of all personality. He mentions her family and former husband only in passing, and doesn’t say anything about Josef at all.
“We’ll now take a few moments to sit with our thoughts of Edith,” the man says when he’s finished his monologue. The small assembly sits in silence for half a minute, while tinkly piano music plays from the speakers.
“If anybody would like to share any of their special memories of Edith, you are very welcome to come up,” the man says, stepping away from the microphone.
Jemima looks around. Everyone is still sitting in place, heads down.
She is out of her seat and on her way to the front of the room before she really knows what she’s doing. The young man looks surprised to see her. He bends down. “Would you like to say something?”
Jemima nods. “Yes, please.”
The man adjusts the microphone to her height.
“Hello,” Jemima says tentatively. Her voice still sounds small. The man motions her closer to the microphone.
“Mrs Schimmelbeck was a really good person,” Jemima begins. “She helped my Mum and me so much.” She swallows. “I wish she didn’t die so soon.” Jemima feels tears welling in her eyes and fights to stay in control of her voice.
“I was only just getting to know her properly. She wasn’t just some boring old lady,” she says, with a sidelong glance at the celebrant. “Do you know she had a little boy once? His name was Josef, and she loved him more than anything. He died when he was only little, and she missed him her whole life.” One of the craft group ladies dabs at her eyes with a tissue.
“She was really, really smart. She knitted me this cardigan and she hardly even had to look while she did it. She used to give me little presents all the time just to be nice.” Thinking about how little she’d appreciated Mrs Schimmelbeck’s gifts to begin with, Jemima’s cheeks flush. She wants to say more, but words seem unequal to the task of expressing everything she’s feeling.
“She was my friend,” she eventually gets out through a small sob. “She was my friend.”
“Goodness, this is an impressive spread,” says Mum, surveying the buffet with an air of bewilderment.
There is more food at Mrs Schimmelbeck’s wake than the small cohort of guests could possibly hope to eat. There are platters of fresh oysters, rosettes of smoked salmon served on blinis, little dishes of poached chicken salad. And chocolate mousse, piped into stemmed glasses and drizzled with raspberry coulis. A smile slowly spreads across Jemima’s face.
“It is a bit over the top, I suppose,” says a voice to their left. “But very specific instructions were left as to the menu.”
It’s the man in the suit, the one she’d noticed earlier sitting at the front of the chapel. He holds out a hand for her Mum to shake.
“Chris Hall,” he introduces himself. “Edith Schimmelbeck was my aunt. And I’m guessing you must be Tracey and Jemima?”
Mum looks surprised. “I… yes, that’s right.”
Chris smiles. “Look, have you got a few minutes? I’m wondering if we could have a quick chat.”
Mum’s forehead wrinkles. “I suppose so. Uh, about what?”
“Edie made provision for you in her will,” Chris explains. “I’m her executor. There will be a formal reading, but I wanted to give you an idea of what’s going on and I haven’t got much time to tie up loose ends before I fly back to Adelaide tonight. Should we perhaps step outside for a few minutes?” He gestures toward the glass door leading out into the grounds of the funeral home.
Mum shoots Jemima a confused glance, but they obediently follow him outside. It’s drizzling, so they take shelter in a rotunda by a small artificial lake. Undeterred by the rain, a couple of plump brown ducks are gliding along on the brown surface of the water.
“Bit of a miserable day poor Edie got for her send off,” Chris comments idly, looking out at the grounds.
“No, it’s perfect,” Jemima counters. “It’s lovely weather for ducks.”
“I suppose it is,” Chris agrees slowly. He sounds puzzled, but doesn’t labour the point.
“Has Edie really left us something in her will?” Mum says. “She can’t have had much, and really it should all go to you, you’re family.”
Chris chuckles. “Oh, don’t you worry about me. Edie’s looked after me too, and I’m not lacking for anything.” He gestures towards a wooden bench in the rotunda, inviting Mum and Jemima to sit, and withdraws an envelope from the inside pocket of his suit jacket.
“I know Edie lived very frugally – it was the habit of a lifetime for her, as it is for many of the older generation,” Chris says. “But she came from among the oldest families in South Australia – they were land owners. She also worked hard and invested sensibly all her life. She wasn’t millionaire, but she certainly had something put by.” He sighs. “What for, I couldn’t say. She could have lived much more comfortably than she did.”
He looks at Mum. “I don’t know how much she might have shared of her past, but my Aunt – well, the whole family, really… we haven’t been without our difficulties, our sadnesses. Edie hasn’t had an easy time of it. Maybe she didn’t think she deserved life’s luxuries, I don’t know.”
“Anyway. The two of you have meant a lot to her in her last few years. Edie hadn’t been over to visit us in awhile, not since she first got sick, but she wrote letters every few weeks and we called her once in a while. She spoke of you a lot, and I know Jemima was a real joy to her. Thank you for being part of her life.”
Mum puts her had to her lips, and Jemima sees a tear trickle down her cheek.
Chris looks down at Jemima and smiles. “It’s a shame we don’t live closer, I have two girls about your age. I bet you’d get on great.”
He passes the envelope to Mum. “Edie left this with her will. I haven’t opened it, but I expect she explains it all in there. I’ll leave you to have a read. I’ll be in touch about probate.” He hands her a business card. Jemima sees that he works for a legal firm.
With that, Chris stands and strolls back across the grass through the misting rain.
Mum holds the plain, white envelope with her name on it in her hands for a few long moments.
“Go on, open it,” Jemima urges.
Mum slides a fingernail under the flap of the envelope. She pulls out a couple of pages of unlined paper, covered in Mrs Schimmelbeck’s writing.
Jemima watches Mum’s face as she reads the letter, her eyes widening and narrowing as she scans the rows of sloping cursive.
“What does it say?” Jemima asks.
Mum holds up a hand to still her and continues reading. “Oh!” she gasps at one point, and more tears spill from her eyes.
When she finishes reading, she gets to her feet and leans over the railing of the rotunda, breathing deeply.
“Mum? What’s wrong? What does it say?”
Mum smiles weakly at Jemima. “Nothing’s wrong, love. I just…” Mum trails off, and simply hands Jemima the letter.
She reads slowly, deciphering Mrs Schimmelbeck’s spidery handwriting.
Darling Tracey and Jemima,
By the time you get this letter, I’ll be gone. I hope you won’t waste time feeling sad for me. I stopped believing in God or an afterlife years ago, but when I turn to dust and merge with the earth, it’s as close as I’ll come to having back everything I’ve lost. That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it? Not an occasion for sadness at all.
I don’t know how to thank you both enough for your help and friendship, so I won’t try. I’ll just say that when the two of you moved into the building, it changed things for me. I wasn’t unhappy, but my world had become very small. Being a part of your lives, even on the periphery – it’s been such a pleasure and a comfort.
I must ask you to forgive me. The bequests I’m leaving you on my death, I’d actually rather have given you some time ago. But how does one go about bringing up the subject? On the surface we were nothing more than neighbours, so I felt I hadn’t any right to interfere in your lives. I have no doubt that you’d both be fine without my help. Tracey, you’re a powerhouse, Jemima is in the best possible hands. All the same, I do hope you won’t mind me sticking my nose in one last time, because you both mean the world to me.
I know you weren’t aware of this, but the flat that you are renting belonged to me. Now it will belong to you. Chris will arrange everything, and the paperwork was all signed in advance, so you won’t need to wait for it to go through probate.
There will also be a lump sum for you, Tracey. I’m returning to you every cent you’ve paid in rent over the past three years, plus a bit for luck. For goodness’ sake, go and get that nursing degree, will you? It’ll pay your fees and put food on the table while you study, and pay for a babysitter for Jemima when she needs it. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody better suited to nursing than you. It’s time.
For Jemima, Chris will be setting up a trust. I expect a bright young thing like you will probably want to go to university one day. Or use it to travel and see the world, whatever you like, my lovely girl. All I ask is that you live fearlessly.
And think of me once in awhile.