*This is an extract from my manuscript, Blood and Fire. It is set in Melbourne, over twenty years ago, in the residential training facility of a cult-like organisation. Please forgive any references in the text which are unexplained.*
It seemed there was a roster for every activity in the college. In addition to house duties, and washing-up, there was the responsibility for driving cadets’ children to primary school. The latter was met with conflict, as many single cadets felt it was incongruous to be responsible for taking children to school. It was a short trip, but fraught: peak-hour, through Parkville and Carlton, with about ten or twelve children on board the mini-van.
After a month or so, my first time rolled around to take the kids to school. I was livid: the actual mothers of these children were not required to be on this roster. It appeared that the organisation gave mothers a more relaxed time in college, raising the next generation of members was considered a prized role. In the bus that morning, three children, siblings, were unruly.
‘Could you be quiet, please,’ I shrieked from the driver’s seat, keeping my eyes on the mayhem of Melbourne traffic. Coming from Adelaide, I was still not used to the volume of cars on the roads at any given time.
‘Ooooh, Michelle wants us to be quiiiiiiiiieeeeeeet,’ cried Samantha, the youngest in the bus, and the biggest personality. She had long red hair, pale blue eyes, and an attitude that showed she ruled her family. Her brother and sister were bouncing about in their seats.
‘Shane and Livia, SIT STILL!’ I yelled. Lowering my voice a little, I continued, ‘Samantha, I’d just like you all to be quiet. The road’s busy.’
‘Ooooh, the road’s biiiiiiiiiizzzeeee,’ Samantha mimicked. I imagined myself slapping her. The others in the bus laughed at Samantha’s blatant disregard for my request. Shrieks and laughter filled the bus. I ignored them.
‘Biiiiiiiiiizzzeeee, biiiiiiiiiizzzeeee, biiiiiiiiiizzzeeee bee,’ Samantha chimed.
I gritted my teeth as I turned from Alexandra Parade into Gold Street, where the primary school was on the right. I pulled into the side of the road, as seat belts unclicked. Emma, sitting closest to the door, slid it open as all the children tumbled out.
‘See you this afternu-oooon Miiiiiicheeeeeeellle,’ Samantha sang, leaning through the passenger and driver’s seat to poke her tongue at me.
Lily, still in the passenger seat next to me, her fingers splayed across the door handle, lingered before opening it. ‘You all right?’ she asked me. ‘Samantha can be a little cow. You should’ve seen what she did to Kathie last week. I full on thought Kathie was going to wallop her one.’
‘Ah, she’s a girl who needs a good walloping,’ I responded. I smiled at Lily, and continued, ‘Thanks, I’m fine. You’d better go, you’ll be late.’
‘See you, thanks for the lift.’ Lily closed the door gently behind her, and waved as I pulled away.
Later that week, a group of single cadets arranged an appointment with Avril regarding the roster. We had a good case behind us: we highlighted the behaviours of the children during the journey, and, as none of us were parents we argued it wasn’t fair that we shoulder the responsibility of taking other cadets’ children to school. It should fall only to those with children.
‘Thank you for your thoughtful suggestions. I promise I’ll chat to the parents to encourage some consequences for the disruptive and rude behaviour shown to you all,’ Avril said, once Dave, our spokesperson, had finished pleading our view. ‘But, as for your removal from the roster, my hands are tied, I’m afraid. This is community living. We all pull together to help each other. And once you’ve finished training, when you’re out there, this sort of experience will help you in no small measure. We’re teaching you humility, and the spirit of helping others.’
Once outside Avril’s office, I glanced at Beth. She was purple. Dave took her aside, placed his arm around her shoulders, and whispered something in her ear. I had no choice but to walk past them, with the others in the group, on our way to the lifts.
‘But it’s totally inappropriate,’ I heard Beth say, still spitting with anger. Her Scottish accent became thicker with emotion.
‘We can’t win this one, Bethie,’ said Dave. ‘Take a breath. You win some, you lose some.’ He pulled her in close, and kissed her forehead. She looked up, into his eyes, and smiled. The rage melted from her face.
In the lift, doors closing, Kathie said, ‘There’s the first couple. Who’ll be next, you reckon?’
‘Oh my, when did that happen?’ I asked. I had no idea they’d hooked up.
‘Not long after the welcome dinner,’ Kathie responded. ‘I think she was worried you were after him.’
‘What? No way,’ I said. ‘I hardly even know him. How could she possibly think I was going for him?’
‘Well, that’s what I heard anyway. And, remember, it’s a pretty shallow pond that we’re fishing in.’
I briefly wondered if I had stumbled into a Jane Austen novel, where a woman’s hunt for a husband had nothing to do with whether they were compatible. Was my fate similar to Charlotte Lucas’ where I would scurry off to marry Mr Collins and live a hapless and unfulfilled life? Or would I be more like Lizzy Bennett, and refuse to be married unless swayed by the deepest sense of attachment and love.