As it turned out, there was no possible way I could have realistically gotten away once the completion of my duties had been carried out, even if I’d have tried. After having been involved in the way I had been, even I could see that it would have appeared quite rude to bail half way through the proceedings, so I resumed my seat and sat there under the hot January sun, for the remaining presentations.
The next award to be presented was a special bravery award, which was handed to the young guy who was with us on stage, Adam Sawyer. He was a junior surf life saver and had single-handedly saved the lives of two teenagers who had been swept out to sea in a dangerous rip. He was very gracious and humble in his short speech and was duly applauded for his efforts. We would later meet the two young girls he had saved, and their adoration of young Adam was plain for all to see.
That was followed by the presentation of two Community Service awards, with one each being for Junior and Senior citizens. The Junior award was presented to one of the young girls present, who had apparently raised a substantial amount of money for a new piece of equipment for the aged care facility at the old hospital, while the Senior award was given to the lovely elderly lady amongst us, for her many years of service to various local sporting clubs and other associations. Both winners were very well received by the crowd and cheered for quite loudly as they accepted their beautiful framed certificates.
That only left two people amongst us who had yet to be called to the microphone, with the last two awards being the local Young Australian of the Year and the Australian of the Year.
The winners of these were obviously the snooty-sounding girl who had taken me to task about my wanting to be elsewhere, and the woman in her forties, whose name I had by chance discovered was Janet, as she had said very little in the time we had all been waiting. Both looked quite nervous as they sat there on the plastic seats we had been provided with, waiting for their names to be read out, and as expected it was Rick who seemed to be prolonging the agony.
After a long and drawn out build up, which included reading out an extensive list of achievements, both academic and cultural, he finally got to the point.
‘And so, it gives me great pleasure,’ he finally said, ‘to announce that the winner of the Thompsonville Young Australian of the Year, is none other than . . . Rebecca Thompson.’
At hearing that name I was immediately on alert. I looked at her as she stood up and strode confidently toward Rick and the microphone, without once looking at any of us. I watched where she was looking and could see that she was focused solely on the unique — some might even say ugly — glass award that Rick was holding in his hands.
Dragging my eyes off her for a moment I looked out at Aaron. I could easily see him frowning, as if he were trying to figure something out. The name Andy Thompson was bouncing around inside my head, and I felt sure that it would no doubt be bouncing around inside Aaron’s as well.
After a few moments, as young Rebecca accepted the award she had obviously coveted, I gently touched our Senior Citizenship award winner on the elbow. She turned to look at me.
‘Do you know who her father is?’ I asked her quietly.
‘Why, yes dear. It’s such a sad tale really. He’s a horrid little man, who has been away for most of her life, but she seems to have coped quite well all the same. Her father is Andy Thompson. Do you know him?’
‘We’ve met,’ I replied.
‘She was raised by her grandfather. That’s him down there, in the second row,’ she added, then nodded in the direction of the old bastard, who I picked out immediately. The last time I had seen him was across the courtroom, the day, nine years ago, when his son was sentenced for what he had done to Aaron and another boy named Paul. He looked like a tyrant then, but today, smiling up at his grand-daughter he looked like any other proud parent. That was until he looked my way; then the face of the tyrant returned.
I had nothing to be concerned about. I couldn’t care less about him or his son, and I certainly wasn’t going to be cowering down to him or have him trying to psych me out, so I stared back at him, offering as cold an expression as I could muster, until finally it was he who looked away. When he did that I glanced across at Aaron. He must have seen who I was staring at, as he was now staring in that direction as well, and looking a decidedly paler shade than he had a few minutes ago.
Quickly I pulled my phone from my pocket and flipped it open, then, as discreetly as I could, I pressed a few keys and sent a text message.
‘Forget about him. He can’t hurt you,’ I said.
After just a few seconds I saw him reach into his pocket and pull out his phone to check the message as it went through. He read it and then glanced up at me. Then he smiled.
I watched as he pressed some keys and sent a reply.
When my phone beeped I looked at it and smiled myself. ‘I NO. TY. ILY.’
I grinned down at him, but then my phone beeped again, so I checked the message. ‘First offer rejected. Steffan trying again.’
‘OK,’ I hastily replied, then put the phone away, before someone took me to task over it.
By this time Rebecca had finished her speech and the crowd was cheering again, as she came back to her seat. Then it was time for the final award of the day, for the Thompsonville Australian of the Year.
Rick started to tell the crowd all about the wonderful achievements of the lady who was sitting amongst us, but found himself cut short when someone in the crowd yelled out, ‘Just get on with it! We know all that!’
‘What? Yes . . . well, you do all know her, and you know all about the many fine things she has done for this community, so I guess I may as well bring her up here. Ladies and gentlemen, please congratulate our own Australian of the Year, Janet Westaway!’
We all stood as one as Janet got to her feet and made her way across the stage to Rick. She clearly looked to be overwhelmed by all the attention as Rick congratulated her and presented her with a slightly larger version of the ungainly looking award that Rebecca had received.
For what seemed like quite a while she stood there, looking at the award, then at the crowd, then back at the award again. When the applause finally died down she stepped in closer to the microphone and said, in a somewhat unsteady voice, ‘Thank you. Thank you Mr Mayor, and thank you to the citizens of this wonderful little town . . .’
For a few moments she looked around her, at those of us on the stage and at those in the crowd, before she finally began to speak.
‘I am truly honoured and blessed to be recognised with the presentation of this award,’ she began. ‘Those of you who know me, will know that I do what I do not for the pats on the back, or for the public recognition or for the glory. I do what I do because I love what I do, and because without someone there to do it, these kids would have a very bleak life.’
At those words my ears immediately pricked up. I didn’t have the advantage of knowing the lady, as the locals obviously did, and so, seeing as her introduction a few moments ago had been cut short, I was in the dark as to just what she had achieved which had resulted in her being awarded this honour.
‘Some might think that supervising handicapped children would be a burden. I don’t see it like that. They are people too, and for me they are the light of my life, while seeing their faces every time they manage to make some small step forward, well, it is just a pure delight. I don’t say that it sometimes isn’t a challenge, but having a smiling face look back up at you far outweighs any obstacles that may ever be placed in front of us as we care for these angels.’
For a full five minutes she continued to speak, and I was simply enthralled. Here was a woman who, I soon learned, had given up her own teaching career to help care for a handicapped foster child. One soon became three, and it wasn’t long before not only had there had been more than a dozen such children passing through her home, but she had also managed to convince the authorities that a care facility was needed for them, which she now administered.
When she had finished speaking, Janet once again gave thanks for the honour that had been bestowed upon her, then the crowd rose as one to cheer and applaud her, as did all of us on the stage.
Eventually the noise died down and the Mayor was once again able to take charge of the microphone, which he seemed to be very fond of, judging by the way he fussed over it. Rick beckoned someone from off the stage to him and presently a young girl dashed up the steps carrying an attractive bunch of flowers, which he handed to Janet, before then kissing her on the cheek.
‘Janet, as far as the people of Thompsonville are concerned, there is not another more deserving person in the shire for this award to be bestowed upon. We congratulate you, and we thank you, as do the many children who you have cared for over the years.’
‘Thank you, so much,’ we heard her say, although I suspect we were the only ones, as she wasn’t really standing close enough to the microphone stand.
‘And now,’ Rick said, speaking directly into the microphone once more, ‘that brings us to the conclusion of today’s official proceedings. For a short time you will all have the opportunity to meet with our award winners, for autographs to be signed or to have photographs taken, and then afterwards we will let the real party begin, which will of course culminate with the fireworks later tonight!’
At that the band picked up their instruments and began playing an old traditional Aussie song, Waltzing Matilda, which just seemed to fit the moment. As the official party began making our way off the stage and down to the area in the front, we were soon swamped with well-wishers and autograph hunters, which kept us busy for at least the next half an hour.
* * *
While we were otherwise detained, Aaron and the guys had all kept their distance. I looked around a couple of times and saw them all still standing together, while every now and then a few other people would join them for a short time, before moving on. Their conversations seemed animated and they all looked to be enjoying the day, which was something at least.
I also noticed Carol, Joel and Kieran all still hard at work, recording interviews and making sure they had plenty of footage of the day’s activities. Carol, especially, seemed to be keeping busy chatting with people and it appeared that she was enjoying herself in doing so.
When it looked like the crowds were starting to thin a little I moved closer to Janet and gently touched her elbow. She turned to see who it was and seemed a little surprised when she saw it was me.
‘Sorry, I just wanted a quick word if I may, before we all go our separate ways,’ I said to her.
‘Of course, Tony.’
‘Before today I had no idea you even existed, but I’m so glad I got to meet you. I was wondering if we could get together at some stage to talk about what you do? Would that be all right?’
‘Of course, although I’m not exactly sure how I . . .’
‘I have a project in the works,’ I said, cutting her off. ‘It’s for homeless gay youth, and it’s in conjunction with an existing service that is struggling somewhat. I just wanted to pick your brains, if I may, about how to go about setting up a care facility, and being able to make it work, that’s all.’
‘That’s all?’ she laughed. ‘It’s a lot easier said than done, you know.’
‘I don’t doubt that in the slightest. But even the longest of journeys must start with one small step.’
‘That is so true, Tony. So true indeed.’
‘I have to head back to Brisbane shortly, but I won’t be away for long, I hope. I’ll look you up when I return, if that’s all right?’
‘Of course. You can find us through the old hospital. We occupy one of the wings there. Do you know where it is?’
‘Oh yes, I’ve been there often enough. Thank you.’
‘You’re most welcome. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to get back there. It has been so nice meeting you today.’
‘And you also. And congratulations on your award.’
‘Thank you, so much.’
We shook hands and then, after she also said farewell to those other guests who were still in attendance she drifted off into the milling crowd and eventually vanished.
‘Seems you’ve made an impression there,’ a voice beside me said as I had watched her walk away. I turned to see Kurt standing there.
‘She seems to be an amazing lady,’ I replied. ‘I was just asking if I could come and see her when I get back, to talk about what she does.’
‘Get back? I thought you lived in Brisbane these days?’
‘I have been, but I’ll be spending considerably more time here again from now on,’ I said, as I looked across at where Aaron stood, chatting with two guys. As I did so Aaron looked my way and smiled.
I know I smiled back at him and I sensed Kurt follow my gaze.
‘Ahhhh . . . I see,’ he said, with what seemed like a knowing tone in his voice. I looked at him and saw him smiling my way. Straight away I felt my cheeks flush.
‘Something new?’ he asked.
‘Something renewed,’ I replied. ‘Actually, something that never should have been let go of in the first place.’
‘Good for you, then.’
‘Well, I’m going to have to push off now as well. It has been a pleasure meeting you today,’ he said, as he thrust out his hand, which I duly shook.
‘Likewise,’ I replied.
‘Look me up if you’re ever down our way. You can get hold of me through the footy club if you want to catch up, or if I can ever help with anything.’
‘Thanks. That’d be great.’
‘Anytime. Now, I better say goodbye to these folks and see if Rick has arranged for some wheels to get me back to the airport. Take it easy, man.’
‘You too,’ I replied as Kurt started walking away. It was then that I suddenly had an idea and called out to him. ‘Hey Kurt, when you said “help with anything”, might that include help with fundraisers?’ I asked, while grinning at him.
‘Sure,’ he laughed. ‘The footy club gives out stuff all the time, and we’re always doing stuff to help out, so just let me know what you want. I’m sure we’ll be able to come up with something for you.’
‘You’re a champion! Thanks.’
He grinned back at me, then continued over toward where Rick was standing, talking to Rebecca Thompson and her grandfather.
For a few moments I stood there and studied them, trying to get my head around that fact that Rebecca was also one of them, without, of course, immediately condemning her just because of her lineage. I would never forget the court case that had brought an abrupt ending to the innocence of my youth, however, nor would I forget the dirty tricks that their high-powered legal team had tried in order to keep his son, Andy Thompson, out of gaol.
When the old man glance my way and scowled I dismissed him from my mind and turned my attention back toward where Aaron and the others were, only to find him and two guys walking toward me.
One of these guys looked familiar to me, and for a moment I struggled to put a name to him, but when I saw him look toward Thompson and sensed a fire quickly rising up inside him, I knew instantly who it was.
‘Hey you. Remember me?’ he asked as the three of them joined me.
‘Of course I do, Paul. How the hell are you?’ I said, while dispensing with the usual pleasantries of handshakes and pulling him straight to me in a hug.
‘See, I said he’d remember you,’ Aaron chided.
To be continued . . .