Title: The Jam Setter
Author: Susan Downham
Genre: Women's Fiction
Excerpt Heat Level: 1
Book Heat Level: 3
Von has been the keeper of the family secrets for half her lifetime. She has kept them close to her heart but after a visit from her favourite niece she decides it is time to share them. As the secrets are shared, two distant families collide. Von leaves her picturesque haven of Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula in Tasmania for Scotland. Her niece Jennifer travels with her. It is in Scotland that she finds her own peace as she puts the family’s secrets to rest. As everyone reveals their own truth about the past, Jennifer, Von’s niece finds love in the most unlikely of places.
Von Ellis loved playing bowls. She had taken it up after her husband passed away, and to her amazement, loved it. She wouldn't admit to anyone she wished she'd taken it up years earlier when her knees were in better shape and her joints didn't ache so much on winter mornings. Von had never been the sporty type, more the traditional homemaker type. A handful of close friends and Dougie by her side, she hadn't thought she needed anyone else.
When she first joined the local bowls club, she thought she would never fit in. It was her old friend Gwen who insisted she join. Gwen needed something to keep her mind busy, and besides Von knew she couldn't just stay at home moping about being shitty with the world because she lost her Dougie. Though some days were still a struggle she now had new reasons to get out of bed.
She had to admit she was shitty with the world. There seemed nothing fair about the whole thing. Dougie retired, they had plans, and they had a whole life to live together without the burden of a mortgage, children to raise or school fees to pay. The freedom of being children free often brought couples unstuck, and over the years Von had seen a few parents split once the kids left home. They had a name for it now, empty nest syndrome, but back then when she and Doug found themselves as empty nesters she didn't have a fancy name for it, but she knew it smelt like freedom. Not that she had ever felt burdened with the children, far from it, she'd loved being a fulltime mother and never regretted the choices she made. When they found themselves alone, she and Doug thrived. Not long after they had the house on their own her cycle slowed to almost a stop. This did wonders for their sex life. She knew for others it didn't always work that way, but for Von, who always suffered, she felt like she had been born again, a whole new woman.
They'd talked about Doug's retirement for the five years before the day finally arrived. They bought a campervan second hand, and Doug fixed it up so it looked brand new, and inside they revamped it so it had every mod con they could think of. Von, a list maker, made a list of the things they already had that they would need to pack into the campervan and another list of what they would need to buy. She had lists stuck inside the cupboards of what food would be going where so she knew what food would fit. It made Maureen laugh and tell her there were supermarkets on the mainland. Von knew this but she had concerns about being stuck out on the Nullarbor without enough food to eat. She hated to go hungry and didn't want to ever do that again.
They had been into the city to the map shop and spent an hour with the lovely lady who helped them choose a plethora of maps and travel guides. They had three maps pinned up around the lounge-room and made notes on them all, as they worked out the route they intended to take. Doug had friends he'd worked with who spent four months a year in a caravan park in Queensland, and they marked out a month to spend with them. Von also had a sister who moved to Alice Springs in the early nineties and they made plans to visit her.
When they had first told Maureen and Kathryn about their big adventure, the girls weren't very interested, but as the date edged closer, so did their nerves. Maureen didn't want them to go at all. She was worried who would look after the children if she and Eric wanted a night out. Kathryn just worried her parents were too old and too clueless to manage such a trip. They never had anything positive to say about their parent's plans. Steven simply shrugged his shoulders, and as long as he wasn't needed to do anything, he didn't care. He'd always been like that even as a toddler. He was only concerned with what was going on in his world and not with what was going on outside of it. Because he seemed different to the girls, Von asked her doctor about him several times but she told her Steven was just Steven and all children were different.
He didn't have any learning difficulties, in fact he was quite the opposite, he seemed to learn at an accelerated rate and adapted to the IT world like a fish to water. It had never been something either Von or Doug understood. He just understood how anything electronic worked, pulled things apart and fixed them and when he got into computing he learned how to write complex programs. He'd wanted to join the army straight out of high school, but Doug wouldn't hear a thing about it. He had older cousins who fought in the Second World War and neither of the two nephews who had been drafted into the Vietnam War came home. He was as patriotic as the next man, and if there was a war in his own backyard, he told Steven he would fight. He wasn't going to let his son go off and fight someone else's war in a foreign country. Steven waited until he was in second Year University, and then he enrolled. He came home with the paperwork all filled in; being over eighteen he didn't need his parents' permission or approval.
Doug told Steven he was a bloody fool and walked out of the house. Von cried and tried to talk Steven out of it. It didn't matter as his mind was made up. Now he was forty-six and still working for the army. He'd been deployed in all the hot spots and now he was in a consulting role, which Von didn't understand. His last mission had him travelling to the Middle East acting as a political advisor.
After Doug's funeral the girls decided, without consulting their mother, that the house in Stewart's Bay would be sold and she would go and live with one of them. Maureen wanted her more than Kathryn, but Kathryn was keen for her mother to visit for a month in the January school holidays. Neither of the girls thought to involve Von in their plans. They even talked to a real estate company to arrange an inspection before telling their mother of their plans.
Von had been livid, and she wondered how she managed to raise such self-obsessed insensitive girls. Prior to the real estate agent turning up unannounced on a Wednesday morning only weeks after the funeral, Von had been thinking of asking Maureen if she could spend two nights a week with her and Eric and the children, so she wasn't completely on her own.
The day the real estate agent turned up Von wasn't sure what he was doing there. Still she made him a cuppa then showed him through the house. He was impressed and told her so when they sat on the front porch with him talking about how the values of the houses in the area had gone up. It had once been a haven for holiday makers who built little shacks for the summer holidays. With an aging population, many people moved permanently into the area. This pushed the prices to new sky high levels. Von clicked what was going on half way through the house tour, and after a cuppa and pleasant chat, she'd given the real estate agent his marching orders. He apologized and explained how Maureen had contacted him and told him she wanted to sell. She denied her own need for company by vowing never to sleep under her daughter's roof again.
That was what Doug loved about her; she was pig headed, stubborn, honest and real. That's what he used to say about her. She always stuck to her guns. Staying at Stewart's Bay was the same thing. She stuck to her guns and wouldn't be moved by anyone. She wished she'd been able to just pack up the campervan and take off as she and Doug planned, but she couldn't. It wouldn't have been the same without him. They'd planned to go skinny dipping at Monkey Mia, make love in a tent at Uluru, make love in the ocean at Cable Beach and a lot of other things that included being naked and being in love. At fifty-six, when Doug's heart gave way, people were surprised because they thought him to be much younger than his years. His mother had been the same.
She missed the sex, Doug had been a very demanding husband, and she always enjoyed being naked with him. Of all the things about Doug she could miss, it was lying naked in bed with him, feeling his arms wrap around her from behind him hard against her, rubbing himself on her bottom or back. Sometimes it used to drive her spare that he wasn't more romantic in the bedroom, and now it was the one thing she missed the most.
It was also something she never talked to the girls about. She grinned as she thought of what their faces would look like if she said to them I miss your father's hard penis rubbing against the back of me. She smiled and tried to focus on what was being said.
She wished this day was a bowls day, but it wasn't. Instead seated at her kitchen table yabbering on was her youngest daughter who arrived unannounced the night before, seemingly to chastise her for her lack of a decent diet and her obsession with beach walking.
Von did wonder who's business it was if she went beach walking or not. It was her life and she was feeling determined to live it out any way she chose to. Not that her children were at all happy with her decision. They were still on to her to sell the house and move back up to the city with one of them, permanently. Someday she walked up and down Stewart's Bay Beach, which was a short four hundred meters long. Other days she walked along Half Moon Bay Beach or Eagle Hawk Neck Beach or she went around to Premaydena and walked out there in the shallows. Mostly she walked with Gwen and Harriett, her two best friends.
Von was a lot of things, she mused to herself as her daughter turned the pages of the newspaper and sipped her coffee, but stupid was not one of them. Von was still eighteen in her head, young and virile and full of life.
"I am serious, Mum, it worries us you are down here all alone and, well, what if you had a fall or something?"
"If I have a fall, Maureen, I will pick myself back up and ring the ambulance."
"What if you can't pick yourself up?"
"Then I will pull my mobile phone out of my pocket and ring the ambulance."
"I don't think that is the answer, you have all those stairs off the deck. What if you slipped down those?"
"How old do you think I am, Maureen? I am only sixty seven."
"Only sixty-seven" she said, not keeping any of her sarcasm out of her voice.
"God, Mum, you will be seventy in a couple of years, but you think you are a young woman, and you aren't."
Von turned her back on Maureen and stared outside at the strip of bright green grass that was being flood lit by the sun pushing through the trees at the side.
She remembered it was Thursday, which meant Harold had to be coming to get the gardening done. She liked Thursdays, as she liked talking to Harold. At least he was close to her age and remembered all the things she did.
"Are you listening to me, Mum?" Maureen's voice interrupted her thoughts.
"Yes, dear, I am listening to you, and I get it, the three of you are worried about poor old me sitting down here, on the peninsula on my lonesome, about to drop off the perch at any day. It has just occurred to you that in three years I will be the ripe old age of seventy and you will need to measure me up for a wooden casket." She hadn't meant it to come out so sarcastic; she never used to be sarcastic. She found it was something that was coming with age, and it seemed it ran in the family.
"Mum, now you are being ridiculous. We are just worried about you all alone, and I have a big house. You could come and live with us up there," she spat. Von noticed what it was Maureen didn't say. She didn't say her husband's name. She thought back to the night before and she couldn't remember Maureen saying Eric's name once. She talked about the kids, about her charity work and about her friends, a subject Von neither cared nor wanted to know about, but apart from her asking Maureen how Eric was, his name hadn't come up.
"Oh, am I dear? Sorry, I do know how you hate me to be ridiculous," Von flicked the kettle on again and got two cups out.
"I don't want another cuppa, Mum," Maureen said, flicking the newspaper loudly.
"It's alright, Maureen, I wasn't getting a cup out for you," she said spooning the coffee in and turning the cups around so the handles were facing the outside of the bench.
"Oh, god no, Steven was right, you are losing it." Maureen said.
Von rolled her eyes, wondering to herself if stabbing her daughter was wrong. She knew it was but still the thought gave her some relief. She wondered what was going on with Maureen; she dared not ask her if it was change of life. The last time she mentioned the idea Maureen turned a horrible shade of white and nearly slapped her face.
She poured the boiling water in and gave the cup a stir, checking the clock up on the wall, the background around the numbers faded and the black plastic now grey in places. It had been a gift a long time ago from Dougie. Even though Maureen and Kathryn gave her new clocks over the years, she just couldn't bring herself to take this one down.