We’re sitting in the Prayer Tree, feasting on scones from Hannah and muffins from Santangelo’s mum. Griggs and I are playing chess while Chaz lazily sips an espresso, Raffy’s feet resting in his lap. I feel bad for Ben, who is fifth-wheeling but he’s brought his violin with him and pays more attention to it than to any of us.
Raffy is the only one actually doing what we came here to do. Scattered on the sturdy timber floor of the tree house are a dozen brochures from every university and TAFE in the state and ACT. While Griggs carefully considers his next move I crane my neck to look at the brochure in Raffy’s hands: University of Sydney Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies. Raffy can’t use a computer and she hates maths.
‘Off to the city next year, Raffy?’ I ask, trying to sound casual even though the mention of anything beyond the end of September makes my stomach churn. It’s not just the thought of Raffy leaving that makes me feel sick. It’s the thought of me doing the same.
‘You know what my mum says: keep your options open,’ Raffy replies, turning a page and instantly screwing up her face. ‘Ugh, listen to this: 'analysis, design, implementation and maintenance of computer systems within a business environment.’ Do you reckon they wrote it to sound boring on purpose?’
‘I think it sounds great, Raf,’ Santangelo grins. ‘Maybe you’ll finally learn how to save a Word document.’
‘Right, because I forgot to save that assignment one time…’
Griggs finally spots the danger his queen is in and moves her to safety, but I nudge my bishop forward and trap his king easily. He looks at me with raised eyebrows for a moment, but then he smiles and the pride in his face makes me blush. ‘I don’t know what you’re all so worried about,’ he says to the others over my shoulder. ‘Santangelo’s going to get a law scholarship in Canberra and Raffy’s going to channel her mothering tendencies into a nursing degree and Cassidy’s not even going to bother with uni because he’s destined to become a world-famous musician.’
‘What about you?’ Santangelo says.
Griggs tips over his king in surrender and grins. ‘I’m going to tour the globe with chess champion Taylor Markham.’
Later, when Raffy and Chaz have gone to dinner at the Santangelos’ and Ben is at band practice with the Mullet Brothers and Anson Choi, Griggs and I lie side by side on the tree house floor and try not to think about the future. Tomorrow the holidays will end and Jonah will leave again. Pretty soon we have trial exams and then September will roll around and I will leave the Jellicoe School forever, move in with Hannah and Jude for a month of study and then sit my final high school exams. I’m not worried about the exams; I’ve never been anxious about them the way some people get, and I’m not aiming for a specific mark since I don’t know what uni course I want. It’s everything beyond them that scares me.
‘I’m not really that good at chess, you know,’ I say.
‘It’s true. I got beaten at your school’s chess comp, remember. And Jessa’s started giving me a run for my money these days.’
‘The guy who beat you at my school is a freak. And I don’t mean a gifted freak. I mean the kind of freak who literally does nothing but play chess. On the bus. In class. At lunchtimes he’ll sit in the library and verse people on the internet.’
‘At least he’s committed.’
‘He’s crazy.’ Griggs turns to me and I see the stars reflected in his eyes. The night is chilly and he pulls me closer. ‘You really have no idea what you want to do?’
’No.’ It’s strange: I spent so long chasing my mother it’s like I don’t know how to set goals anymore. When I finally found her and brought her back I was so busy trying to make up for the past I never thought to ask her about the future. Then I spent most of this year missing her, and missing Jonah whenever he was away, and now suddenly it’s almost July and I don’t have the slightest idea of what to strive for anymore.
‘You could always take a year off,’ Griggs suggests. ‘Move in with Hannah and the Brigadier – I mean Jude. Get a job in town.’
‘There are no jobs in town,’ I say quietly. I think of Narnie – of Hannah – telling Webb and Tate and Jude they had to move to the city because there was nowhere to live and no money and no jobs. I think of how excited the Five were when they spent days in the clearing discussing their dreams for the future. Before Webb died and Tate was gone and Fitz was lost and Narnie was left behind.
Before Jude came back for her.
‘Will you stay in the city?’ I ask Griggs and I hate myself for hoping the answer is no.
‘Hell if I know, Taylor,’ he answers quietly, linking his fingers with mine. ‘I don’t want to leave my mum and Daniel. I don’t want to leave you. I don’t want you to have to leave Jellicoe. I don’t know if I want to go to uni or TAFE or if I want to get a job as a mechanic or a cop or a social worker or a stripper.’
‘I’ll take a rain check on the stripper.’
He takes my hand to his lips and kisses it, then bites my knuckle gently and I feel my whole body heat up, but force myself to stay focused.
‘Why social worker?’ I ask, curious.
He looks away and I see a bit of shyness creep across his face. ‘I thought maybe I’d make a bit of a difference,’ he says. ‘Maybe help kids like me and Danny when we were young. That sort of thing.’
‘I think that’s a wonderful idea,’ I tell him honestly. I knew a million kids growing up who needed help like that. I wonder if my life would be different if there were more people like Griggs in the world. Then I decide he’s the only one I need.
‘It’s just a thought,’ Griggs mutters. ‘The rest of me wants to run away and join the circus.’ He’s self-conscious and it’s so sweet it breaks my heart. I kiss him, and then he’s kissing me back and then he bites me again, harder this time, and for a while all thoughts of strippers and social workers are gone from our minds.
After Griggs leaves I am miserable as usual, and as is usual when I’m feeling particularly shitty I go to see Hannah. Hannah’s house is unfinished no longer: the skirting boards have all been installed, the lilies planted, the skylight polished. Once I was reassured by its unfinished state because I thought it would keep Hannah in Jellicoe, but now I know that Hannah will be here forever because here is everything she has. Now it’s me I’m less sure about.
These days Hannah has company more often than not, but today I’m relieved not to see Jessa or Jude. I’m sad because Jonah is gone and anxious about the future and annoyed at myself for feeling all this crap, and I just want Hannah to make me a cup of tea and fix all of my problems. Of course, I’m never going to say that to her face.
‘How’s the wedding planning going?’ I ask, taking a seat at the kitchen table. Hannah and Jude are planning a small September ceremony, just close friends and family at the church in town. You would think that a twenty-person wedding wouldn’t be that difficult to organise, but every time I see Hannah she’s agonising over flower arrangements or table settings or groomsmen’s ties. It’s unusual to say Hannah flustered but I like that she’s doing something for herself. She’s asked me to be her maid of honour and Jessa is determined to be the flower girl even though she’s about five years too old.
‘Could be worse, could be better.’ Hannah meets my eye as she puts two cups of tea in front of us. ‘Jude suggested poppies for the bouquet.’
‘I said I’d think about it.’ Hannah sighs. ‘Honestly, eloping is looking more and more appealing by the day.’
‘If you elope, you’d better take Jessa, or else she might kill you.’
Hannah nods. ‘Jude’s mother is much the same.’ She’s silent and I know what she’s thinking: how much smaller her family’s side of the congregation will be compared to Jude’s. I think about my mother not getting to see me marry Griggs and the sadness is so profound I force myself to change the subject.
‘Jonah and I were talking about uni degrees last night.’
Hannah raises her eyebrows and I can see she’s grateful for the distraction. ‘Really? What did you decide?’
I pick up a scone and start pulling it apart. ‘He’s going to study social work, and I’m going to become a stripper.’
After a moment Hannah says, ‘Your father wanted to be an engineer.’
‘Really?’ I’m shocked. Not so much at the career choice, but at the fact that Hannah is talking about it. I’ve never heard her discuss the Five’s aspirations before. I wonder if it’s because they were never fulfilled.
‘Oh, absolutely.’ Hannah’s eyes are far away. ‘Webb loved to build, just like our father. He was the one who came up with the idea for the tunnel, you know.’ I know. I read it in her manuscript. ‘And this house… He’d tell everyone with ears about his plans for this house.’
We lapse into silence. I think about my father, who died dreaming of this house, and I think about his sister, Hannah, who built it after he was gone. A house that would always be there to come back to.
‘Because we’ll never know how great this place is until we leave it,’ Hannah says, echoing her own words from her manuscript, and I know what I have to do.
In the end Raffy and I apply to almost everywhere, although I know in reality I will never go to uni in Sydney. The city is full of memories of my mother, memories that I would rather replace with the ones I now have from Jellicoe, tinged with grief though they are. True to Griggs’ words, Raffy decides to pursue nursing, although she agonises over her preference list for weeks.
When I finally settle on a decision it’s thanks to Ben, of all people. We’re walking home from our last UC meeting, laughing at the terror-struck year elevens we leave in our wake. ‘Just think about your role models,’ he suggests as we traipse back to the Houses in the dark. ‘The metaphorical UC leaders of your life. Figure out why you admire them, and then aspire to do that.’
My role models? I think about Raffy, who is the most loyal and thoughtful and faithful person I know. I think about the soul in Santangelo and the passion in Jonah Griggs and I think about Ben, who got his fingers stomped on and his face smashed in just because he wanted to save me from my past. But these people are my friends, not my role models, and they’re too busy trying to forge their own paths to set me on mine.
In my heart I know it’s Hannah, but there’s a part of me that rejects that notion, because I don’t know if I can be what Hannah is to people. I was useless as a House leader when she had disappeared and I didn’t know who my juniors were, let alone how to take care of them. But then I remember karaoke nights and making dinner together and how I helped rescue two girls from a fire, all while fighting a war, and I realise that maybe I can do it after all.
When I call Griggs and tell him I’m going to become a teacher he is unreservedly proud. ‘You’re going to be great,’ he says enthusiastically. ‘Miss Markham. Or will it be Mrs Griggs by then?’
‘Is that a proposal?’
‘Do you want it to be?’
‘Jonah Griggs, if you propose to me over the phone from six hundred kilometres away, I’ll never speak to you again.’
‘I can be there in six hours.’
‘I think one upcoming wedding is enough for now,’ I tell him, hoping he can’t tell how much I’m grinning. ‘Let me catch the bouquet at Hannah’s, and then we’ll talk.’
‘Have you told her? About what you’ve decided to do?’
I tell him that I went to see Hannah first thing in the morning after my talk with Ben. About how I still wasn’t sure until I walked into her house that morning and saw three of the new year sevens sitting around her kitchen table eating sultana scones. About how she looked up at me and smiled.
About how I had a revelation.
Miss Taylor Markham.
A teacher on the Jellicoe Road.