Fiction (Political, Satire)
Jessica Rawlins comes home to Molong, New South Wales, thinking that country towns have escaped the political correctness she experienced at university. They haven’t. Over lunch with her friends, she questions the immigration that will make them a racial minority in Australia, which countries in Asia would never allow. Her words set off snowballing reactions ultimately consuming the town and ending a life.
The Insubordinate is a story of our ideological West. It’s as much drama as satire because political correctness is both cruel and absurd.
Chapter 1: The Remark
A newcomer could take up home in the town of Molong and live there the rest of a long and happy life, without hearing anyone talk of the summer Jessica Rawlins came home from university. If the newcomer mentioned her name, townspeople would say it was only a story: that such awful things couldn’t happen in so pretty a place. They’d point to the boards of gold-decal names in the Cabonne Council chamber and say there’d never been a mayor named Hector Xiedergrain. There wasn’t even a Pickled Pepper Café anymore.
The people who’d lived in Molong, central western New South Wales, during the early years of the twenty-first century were much the same people, through their many generations, who’d always lived there. The National Trust had classified Bank Street for being cultural heritage in the early Austen-European style, although few people outside the Molong Historical Society and not everyone in the society knew what Austen-European meant.
At the lower end of Bank Street were the shops, where irregularly spaced columns and painted wooden pillars held aloft corrugated-iron awnings, sheltering the footpaths from sun more than rain. Comfortable chairs much like a lounge room at home accommodated women waiting at the Bliss Beauty Salon, below photographs of model women in alluring styles. Hairsprays aromatised the cool conditioned air.
By several mirrors along a wall stood black-vinyl swivel chairs, in which women there for their hair sat with smocks draped over their clothes and around their necks; adjustable frames set different sized customers to each hairdresser’s height. Some customers faced their reflections. Others read magazines, only looking up when the hairdressers asked them if they liked what they’d done. Most conversed, while cut snippets of hair fell to the floor.
Sitting in the chair in which she sat every Tuesday morning (the salon being closed on Mondays), was the once more beautiful Mrs Xiedergrain. She was tall, befitting the wife of the mayor, with high hair sculpted in style for another public week of her husband’s civic duties. Instilled in her skin were the perfumes, potions, and lotions she’d wash away a little each day. “Charlie Quinn and I have the same understanding I’ve had with all the proprietors of the Molong Express,” she said, gazing through her image in the mirror. “I’ll believe everything I read in his newspaper, provided he doesn’t print anything about me.”
Patiently grooming her was Lynne Delaney, the owner of the salon. Lynne stood with her skin creamed to be young, her dark hair held in place.
It suited them all to forget Lynne had worked there since finishing her education at the Molong Central School, too many years earlier. If any of her customers knew she was forty-four years of age, or even if her husband of more than twenty years or their two children knew, then none of them mentioned it; how her latest young assistant came to know was purely by chance, but she too never mentioned it. Lynne had trained the procession of similarly groomed young women passing through the salon assisting her, dressed in their clean white blouses and skirts. Together, they convinced customers they were as beautiful as the women in the photographs hanging from the walls.
At the end of the morning, Mrs Xiedergrain studied her new, same hair in bright reflection. “Thank you, Lynne,” she told the woman in white.
“We’ll see you again, Tuesday, Mrs Xiedergrain.”
The mayoress, as the wife of a mayor was known, smiled. “You get me through the week.”
Lynne opened the door for her customer to leave, as a tall and purposeful man almost twenty-five years of age appeared on the footpath before them. Derek Saxby stood dressed in a business shirt and trousers for the people he met. His collar was open; country New South Welshmen only wore ties for special occasions. He held his brown bush hat in his hands; the late summer sun was still bright enough for people to wear their hats whenever they walked too long outside.
“Good morning, Derek,” Mrs Xiedergrain smiled broadly, stepping forward and placing her hand on his. “You’re much too handsome to come into a salon.”
“I’m here to see Jessica.”
“Jessica Rawlins. Over there.”
Mrs Xiedergrain turned around. Standing at the rear of the salon, under a bright light from the ceiling and wearing her white blouse and skirt, Lynne’s latest young assistant was holding a long broom. Her watch, a small gold oval on a thin band a gift from her late mother, reflected the light from her wrist. Her blonde hair was bound in a bun, and her blue eyes watched the people watching her. Most obvious among her delicate facial features were her softly defined cheekbones. Shorter than any person watching her, although she was five and a half feet tall, Jessica was twenty-two years of age.
Mrs Xiedergrain turned back to Derek, pulled her hand away from his, and drew a long breath. “My husband’s efforts with the Chinese to restart the mine should be good for your real estate agency, Mister Saxby.”
“It should be good for all the businesses in Molong, Mrs Xiedergrain.”
“Quite,” she said. “Good day, Mrs Delaney.”
“Good day, Mrs Xiedergrain.”
The mayoress left the salon and the door closed behind her. Jessica, carrying her broom, moved towards Derek.
“Jess,” said Derek, “Can we have lunch today? I want to ask you something.”
“I’m seeing Susan and Briony, if you want to join us.”
Derek stepped back. “I’ll leave you to talk about me without me,” he smiled. “I’ll see you tonight.” He departed. Jessica resumed sweeping the floor.
Some customers noticed Lynne’s assistants’ young faces, checking to see if they recognised them from their last appointments or from the schoolgirls once in school dresses. They talked about people they knew and people they didn’t, gently asking questions of the women working on them without much interest in their replies.
“And what have you been up to lately?” a customer asked Jessica, as Jessica washed the old woman’s feet.
“I saw an old movie in Manildra on Saturday night, Mrs Tancred, with my boyfriend.”
“I like romances myself,” she said, not really speaking to Jessica. “Saturday night, I shared a very pleasant little meal with my husband at the Wing Hang restaurant.”
The beauticians normally listened just enough to progress the conversations customers wanted to have, but Jessica was new. “I don’t particularly like Chinese food, Mrs Tancred.”
“Ooh, dear,” said Mrs Tancred, pulling back her foot a short way. Jessica reached out to continue washing it.
Lynne interjected. “I think Jessica likes Chinese food very much,” she said, “but not while she’s watching a movie in the Amusu Theatre.”
Mrs Tancred didn’t speak anymore after that. When she’d left, and only they were in the salon, Lynne spoke to Jessica about it. “You’re very good with them,” said Lynne, “but please, whatever they like and dislike, you like and dislike.” Her voice was polite but firm, almost maternal. “If they tell me about a restaurant they’ve visited, then I say I’ve not eaten there for some time so they can tell me about it, even if it’s been my favourite for years or I hate it. It makes them feel best about themselves, and that’s what they’re paying us to feel.”
Lynne spoke like a tutor to her pupil. Jessica dutifully accepted her instruction.
“They assume I agree with them about everything,” Lynne continued, “but they can’t make that assumption if I express an opinion about anything. I put them at ease, save them from thinking anything too difficult, and let them talk about whatever they choose. They don’t talk about anything with which we might disagree, and neither do I. If they can’t talk of matters agreeable, they won’t talk, and they want to talk. It’s a game they pay us to play. That’s what we do, and why they come back.”
By the time Jessica arrived at the footpath chairs and small tables of the Pickled Pepper Café for lunch, Briony Keyte was already there; Briony was always the first of the three friends to get away from work. Wearing a long seamless frock and with large round sunglasses over her eyes, Briony didn’t need to enter a contest to know how beautiful she was. Working as a sales assistant in a ladies-wear shop along Bank Street, her customers liked her to model the fashionable clothes and millinery they contemplated buying.
Soon joining them was Susan Hodgeson, with her button nose and large brown eyes. Wearing another patterned blouse open well below her neck, Susan worked in the post office, selling stamps and other items at the counter and accepting letters and parcels for postage. When her work allowed it, and it often did, she pondered the pottery she forged from her mother’s clay, wheel, and kiln and offered for sale from a shelf. Her first ever show opened that Saturday night, promoted with colourful little cards in piles at the post office, Bliss Beauty Salon, and Briony’s place of work.
The three young women each sat with their handbags slipped under their chairs. Shielding Jessica and Susan’s eyes from the sun were sunglasses much smaller than Briony’s, while the awning above let Jessica rest her sunny-day hat on the spare chair at their table. Jessica’s white blouse and skirt was conspicuously a uniform aside her friends’ clothes, but she had evenings and weekends to wear something colourful. There was too little breeze through the dry air.
Briony sat studying the menu, the same each time they sat there aside from one recent deletion. “There’s no asparagus sauce,” laughed Briony.
“Shush,” said Jessica. Approaching them was the waiter, in his blue-striped apron over immaterial clothes.
“You must love being Volunteer of the Month,” the waiter said to Briony, although she continued studying the menu without seeming to notice him. People had often said as much to her since the mayor announced her award. “Ms Keyte?”
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly, looking up at him. “I forgot to be polite.”
“Briony!” snapped Susan.
“I’ll have a goat’s cheese salad and diet cola,” Briony told him. He scribbled her order on the pad of paper in his hand.
“The same,” said Susan. The waiter added ticks beside the first order.
“I’ll have the penne marinara, please,” said Jessica, “and a glass of apple juice.” Briony glanced down towards Jessica’s waist below the rim of the table, while the waiter scribbled down her order and took the menu away.
“We’re still trying to decide whether you changed, Jess, or we changed,” said Susan, more pointed in her comment than disappointed.
“Young people always change,” Jessica hedged in reply.
“Some do,” said Briony, before laughing. “Molong never changes. Even if it did, we wouldn’t notice the change.”
“Except for the asparagus sauce,” said Susan, before turning back to Jessica. “I don’t know what university taught that you couldn’t learn here.” The waiter set an empty glass before each of the women. “It didn’t teach you to be a hairdresser.”
“I’m earning money for my journey to London,” insisted Jessica, her coming of age incomplete.
“Derek won’t like that,” said Briony. “He’s done well in the years you were away.”
“He wants to ask me something, tonight.”
“What if he’s trying to work up the courage to ask you to marry him?” grinned Susan. “What will you say, Jess?”
“Why ‘no’, of course,” interjected Briony, “at first. You want him to be jealous.” The waiter set three bottles of cold drink before the three women.
Jessica opened her small bottle of apple juice and poured some into her glass, unaffected by what affected her friends. “I’ll use my biology degree somehow.”
They began sipping their beverages. Jessica’s apple juice was the sweetest taste she’d experienced since breakfast; she drank it a little too quickly.
“If the mayor can get the mine operating again,” said Susan, “you could work there.”
“Mines don’t need biologists,” Briony fobbed her off.
“The Chinese might bring other businesses,” Susan retorted. “They say there’ll be three hundred of them coming if the mine goes ahead.”
“Will they stay?” asked Jessica.
“I hope so,” laughed Briony. “If they all bring their families, there’ll be more of them than us!”
Jessica smiled. “Not that we can mention it.”
“Yes, we can,” beamed Briony, as the waiter laid her plate of salad before her. “It’ll be wonderful.”
The waiter set a similar plate before Susan. “We’ll celebrate,” said Susan, gazing over her meal. “This’ll be Chinatown.”
“The mayor will want a big civic reception,” smiled Briony, glancing at Susan, “but he won’t invite some people.”
Susan raised her eyebrows in tiny protest on Jessica’s behalf. Jessica hadn’t cared.
The waiter set a plate of penne marinara before Jessica. “Thank you,” she said, collecting the pasta on her fork before looking back at her friends already eating their salads. “Why will it be wonderful?”
“What do you mean, Jess?” asked Susan, chewing a portion of lettuce.
“It’s diversity,” explained Briony, nodding her head at the waiter hovering over them.
Jessica never spoke with food in her mouth; she kept her mouth closed while she ate. The pasta was a little too spicy for her liking, but she finished chewing her mouthful and swallowed it. “I don’t want to be a minority.”
“A minority?” asked Susan.
“A racial minority,” explained Jessica, “not in my hometown, not in my country.”
Briony and Susan looked around them, causing Jessica to look around too. People at other tables quietly ate their food.
“We know you’ve been away,” Briony told Jessica, “but you can’t talk like that.”
“It’s a terrible thing to say,” Susan added quickly.
“Chinese people wouldn’t want to be a minority in China,” Jessica elaborated. “Asian countries don’t allow all this immigration.”
Briony leant towards her, speaking softly enough not to be heard at other tables but loudly enough for the waiter to hear. “You’re being divisive.”
“How could you?” snapped Susan, gritting her teeth. “We thought you were our friend.”
“Why shouldn’t I be your friend?”
Briony looked up at the waiter. “Can we get another table?” she asked him.
The waiter looked around. Seats at two tables were empty, but he hadn’t yet cleared away the used plates and cups from one or set the clean crockery and cutlery on the other. He stared down at Jessica. “You will have to leave.”
“Please,” he said. “Our customers don’t want your type of person here.”
“What type of person?”
The waiter looked at Briony and Susan. “I’d like another table,” snapped Briony. She picked up her handbag from the ground and stood up, leaving her meal and partly drunk glass of cola.
“I’ll go with you,” said Susan, doing the same.
“Why?” asked Jessica.
Briony looked at the waiter. “We didn’t know her,” she tried to assure him.
“You’re my friends,” complained Jessica.
“We are not!” Susan told her, glancing quickly at the people looking at them from other tables.
“I’ll make up this table for you,” said the waiter, leading Briony and Susan to an empty table. Jessica watched the waiter pull out the chairs for Briony and Susan to sit down. Without acknowledging Jessica staring at him, he took their meals to their new table. “I’ll replace your drinks,” he told them, slipping away.
“I won’t mention it again,” Jessica from her table told Briony and Susan. “We can talk about your award, your pottery.”
“Have you finished reading that book?” Susan asked Briony.
Briony resumed eating her meal. Susan did the same. They conspicuously concentrated their sights upon their food.
Jessica noticed a middle-aged man staring at her. She looked at him and shrugged her shoulders. He looked quickly at his meal.
The waiter brought clean napkins and fresh glasses of cola to Briony and Susan. Alone, Jessica collected some pasta and sauce from her plate onto her fork.
“I think you should leave,” the waiter told Jessica, standing tall over her table.
“I’m eating my lunch.” She lifted the fork to her lips and took the pasta and sauce into her mouth.
The waiter leant forward and picked up a spoon piled with sugar from the sugar bowl. He tipped the sugar onto Jessica’s meal.
Jessica looked at the plate of food she could no longer eat and up at the waiter. Calmly, she lifted her glass and poured the last of her apple juice into the sugar bowl.
“How dare you!” he told her.
Jessica picked up her handbag lying on the ground under her seat and hung it from her shoulder. She returned her hat to her head and stood up from her chair.
“Not yet!” said the waiter, hurrying back inside.
She realised Briony and Susan were watching her, when their faces quickly turned back to their meals. “I’m sorry,” said Jessica.
The waiter rushed back to Jessica. “Your account,” he told her, handing her a small slip of paper.
“You’re joking,” said Jessica, “aren’t you?”
“Must I call the police?”
“I’ll pay for the apple juice. I enjoyed that.”
“We don’t want your type thinking you can get away with anything,” said the waiter.
“What is my type?”
“You will pay for the meal.”
Jessica opened her handbag hanging from her shoulder, removed her purse, and offered the waiter the four dollars her drink had cost.
The waiter didn’t accept her money. “The account is for sixteen dollars.”
“You ruined my food,” Jessica told him. “The pasta was too spicy anyway.”
“Please, Jessica,” interrupted Briony. “Haven’t you said enough?”
“It’s only twelve dollars,” added Susan.
“Madam,” said the waiter. “I can have you arrested.”
“After what happened with the asparagus sauce,” seethed Jessica, giving him sixteen dollars, “it’s a wonder anyone comes here.”
“If you come here again, asparagus sauce will be all that we serve you.”
When Jessica returned to the salon, Lynne Delaney was sitting alone, casually examining her fingernails. “How was your lunch?” asked Lynne.
“Really weird,” replied Jessica, pulling her hat from her head and tidying her hair. “I said something to upset Sue and Briony.” Jessica checked her face in the mirror, preparing to slip into a washroom to tidy herself. “The next thing I know, they’re at another table and the waiter’s telling me to leave.”
“You must all be having a bad day.”
“A bad hair day, you mean.”
Lynne laughed. “They can all come in here and we’ll dolly them up.”
“We can charge the dumb waiter an extra twelve dollars.”