I drove into town to be met by a wall of hostility, not the usual hostility associated with a stranger taking up residence in a smallish country town, which I was, but the hostility towards a man taking the place of a beloved citizen, which I also was. I was because I was guilty of buying up the beloved citizen’s property in a mortgagee sale.
What the hostile residents of Woods Ford didn’t realise was that I had lived here before, albeit briefly, and that there was a certain amount of revenge involved in my return. I was born here but left when I was a few months old, because my mother, Barbara Lloyd, was hounded out of this righteous community because she had the temerity to fall pregnant while she was a single girl, girl being the operative word. She was just eighteen at the time. She refused to identify the father of her child and, although she had been going with Edward Woods at the time, he denied the possibility that he could be the father and, because of this denial she was branded a ‘fallen woman’ even before she became a woman.
Her father, Herbert Lloyd, who was the local parson, turned his back on her, so she packed up her meagre belongings and headed into the city to try to make a new life for herself and her newborn son, James Parsons, me. I was christened James after her father and she chose to change her name to Parsons by deed poll, in an ironic reference to the man who turned his back on her, and on his chance to fully and openly display his Christian love to her.
She went to live with her mother’s sister who had agreed to help her in any way that she could, looking after me when she found work in an office as a typist, taking me to and from school until I went to high school when it was decided that I could get myself to and from school. The whole time my mother and I had been accepted into the family and both of us received an abundance of love and affection from Aunt Cecily and Uncle Ben and Cousins Pete and Rhonda. My Grand-mother visited from time to time to bring us all up to date about Woods Ford and its inhabitants. My mother cried herself to sleep on the night that she heard that Edward Woods had married Jane Thomas, and she smiled to herself when she heard that Jane was divorcing Edward because of his affair with Nancy Brewster.
I graduated high school with good grades, enough to get into Engineering, and I later graduated with an honours degree. This I followed with a post graduate doctorate in Civil Engineering with a focus on dam construction. In this country there is a demand for a regular and consistent water supply for both rural and city use, so my qualifications were very much in demand and I worked on several large catchment dams as well as smaller flood mitigation dams. It was a flood mitigation project that first got me interested in Woods Ford.
The town was situated just downstream from the confluence of two streams, that every ten years or so, flooded, causing significant damage to Woods Ford. Most of the townspeople saw the need for this mitigation project but, first Henry Woods and then his son Edward when he took control of the family hardware and building supply store, resisted the move. Henry Woods was a long time Shire President and was able to convince enough council members to support him in his efforts to defer construction approval.
Those residents that were in favour of the proposal were hopeful when Henry retired that Edward would see the merits of the project and support it. They were to be disappointed when he decided that the financial benefits to the family business from the regular flood repairs far outweighed that of stopping the flooding.
It was when I mentioned to my mother that I was being sent by the State Water Authority to Woods Ford to research the feasibility of the project that she told me of my connection to the place. This got me interested in the history and politics of Woods Ford, in particular the Woods family.
Josiah Woods was the first to settle this district and because of this he chose the best land, it was highly productive alluvial soil, full of nutrients deposited on the flood plain during the occasional floods. As more settlers moved in a small village was built up around the river crossing. This was a ford because at most times there was very little water running over the road. At first the road was consolidated with gravel from a local quarry that Josiah Woods had established further up the side of the valley, but it was later decided to build a more permanent and flood-proof crossing. A substantial stone arch bridge was built using stone from the quarry and cement supplied by Josiah from his newly established store.
The store and the Woods family flourished on a base of being the sole supplier of building materials and hardware within a fifty mile radius and, in the days of horse and cart transport, this was a major undertaking. The Woods Ford population just accepted the fact that they had to pay a premium on supplies from Woods Hardware and Building Supplies.
The Woods family ruled the district with a form of benevolent despotism. As long as you didn’t buck the status quo life was easy for you, but any opposition was met with force. Josiah Woods established a Methodist chapel so that the spiritual needs of the inhabitants could be met. While attendance at this church was not mandatory, those who missed the occasional Sunday service had to show cause and pay their usual financial contribution to the church, while those who chose not to attend found themselves ‘sent to Coventry’, that is shunned by Josiah, and ultimately the rest of the population. If they chose to return to the fold they were accepted, but only after serving a probationary period. Attendance at the church was always strong.
The men of the district were dour hard working folk, used to putting in a ten hour day tilling the soil or felling and milling timber. A co-operative abattoir and dairy was set up to process meat and dairy for those who didn’t have the facility to process their own, so apart from those products such a plates and pots and pans that could not be made locally, the district was largely self-sufficient.
The Woods men had the pick of the crop when it came to women to marry, usually the daughter of a family in favour with the patriarch. The chosen one had to have certain qualities, good looks and poise, a compliant manner and a genetically superior bloodline. This is where my mother failed the test. She was certainly pretty enough having been taught grace and deportment from an early age, her bloodline was considered by the Woods to be, while not considered ‘superior’, good enough. Where she failed to pass muster was that she was less than compliant, there was a rebellious streak in her make-up that just wasn’t acceptable. She suffered fools lightly and considered most of the Woods Ford boys to fit into that category. Except for Edward that is, it was he of all the local boys who she found to be of a similar disposition to herself. Henry Woods forbade Edward from seeing young Barbara because of her rebellious streak that saw her spending more time with boys than she did with the girls of the town. While people didn’t actually come out and accuse her of having loose morals, it was rumoured that she was free and easy with her affections. These rumours were only partly true for, while she was no longer a virgin before the end of her eighteenth year, she had made love to only one boy. Edward considered himself to be privileged that she had allowed him to move beyond first base and had visions of an interesting life with the tempestuous young Parson’s daughter, but that was until the night that she told him the she had fallen pregnant and that he was the father.
Edward was at first devastated with this news, he was not prepared for the change in his circumstances that parenthood would bring. He decided that denial was the best course of action and circulated a rumour that, while she was pregnant, he was not the child’s father. He even went as far as coercing some of his friends into accusing Barbara of having sex with them. From being a well thought of young lady to slut was a short ride, she was shunned by the other girls who would look and talk openly behind their hands about which boy she had been seen having sex with. That none of these rumours were true mattered little to the gossip-mongers. Barbara added fuel to the rumours by openly displaying her pregnancy for all to see. Her father tried to get her to display some remorse in her condition but she refused. “It takes two people to make a baby, I am proud of this achievement, and if the father does not share that pride then he is not the man I thought him to be.”
In the month that followed my birth my mother would openly walk down Main Street with me in a pram. No-one stopped to coo over the cute little baby, choosing instead to ignore ‘the hussy and her bastard’ as they passed, nose held high. My Grand-mother, Rebecca, spoke to her sister Cecily, and it was decided that Barbara and I should go and live with her and her family. The childhood I had was by far better than I would have had in Wood Ford, even if my mother and Edward Woods had married. The marriage would not have survived Edward’s philandering ways, loyalty was one of her strongest character traits and one of his weakest.
The house that I had bought had belonged to Robert Burroughs whose Grand-father had settled not long after Josiah Woods and while Woods branched out into business, Burroughs remained firmly entrenched in farming the rich alluvial soils. Each year crops were planted and harvested and sold within the district. As the years went by the Burroughs expanded their operations and introduced new and improved crops and methods until they were shipping produce to markets far afield. The Burroughs family were philanthropic, giving produce to the needy and following the floods would open their storerooms and provide for those who had lost all.
Unfortunately times change, crops that fetched good prices in years past no longer showed a profit as the supermarket chains screwed the producers. This combined with cheaper imports from other districts where economies of scale and mechanical harvesting technology resulted in much lower production costs, led to the downfall of the Burroughs dynasty. Those people who had been helped in years gone by did not find it in their hearts to help support the Burroughs in their time of need. The current Robert Burroughs had borrowed heavily from the banks who considered their loyalty to their shareholders to be far greater than their loyalty to their customer. They foreclosed on the mortgage and placed the property on the market. It was sold it to me at a fraction of its worth, because the banks were interested only in recouping their loss, not in selling at a market price that would have resulted in a return to the Burroughs.
This contributed to the feeling of hatred that confronted my arrival to Woods Ford. I had expected some animosity, but was un-prepared for the level that was directed at me. I soon found myself labelled a ‘trouble-maker’ because I had approached the Shire Council about my plans to survey the valley above Woods Ford with the view to the construction of a flood mitigation dam. Because there had not been a flood for some years the Council stated that one was not needed. Of course Edward Woods being the current Shire President had nothing to do with that decision!
I was still able to carry out survey work on a proposed site for a dam because I now owned the land, something that hadn’t escaped the notice of Edward Woods, a fact that he pointed out to me when he threatened me. I spent much of my time at the local library going over old newspaper records of previous floods. These records brought to light some interesting facts, like Burroughs donated food to families affected by the floods and extended interest free loans to those who needed a financial leg up to get back on their feet. The beneficiaries of this generosity showed their thanks by actually voluntarily paying standard bank interest on the loans. Meanwhile Woods Hardware and Building Supplies not only did not give essential materials to effect temporary repairs to make homes liveable, but charged higher than normal interest on loans that people had to take out to buy these materials. Woods Hardware and Building Supplies did very nicely out of the floods.
I also took core samples from either side of the valley at its narrowest point and these showed me that this was the optimal site for a dam.
Another point that came of my research was the fact that the insurance companies did not do the right thing by these families that were hit by the floods. For years they hid behind what was known as the ‘Act of God Clause’. This allowed them to refuse payment on claims as the floods were deemed to be an Act of God, not that the good folk of Woods Ford did anything that bad it could bring down the wrath of the Almighty. Then, following a landmark court decision that effectively wiped out this clause, the insurance companies responded by hiking up the flood cover premiums to the point that most of the affected residents could not afford such cover.
I had gathered a pile of clippings that I needed copied so I took them over to the information desk. “Excuse me, do you have a photocopier?” I asked the young lady who was sorting through file records on her computer.
“Yes we do.”
“May I use it to copy these clippings?”
“Sure, I’ll just fire it up for you, it’ll take a little while to warm up, we don’t use it often enough to keep it running all the time. You’re the man that bought the Burroughs place aren’t you?”
“Yes, I hope that you’re not going to heap a load of abuse onto me for doing that, are you?”
“No, in fact I want to say thank you for buying it.”
“Why would you want to do that? Everyone else hates me for it.”
“They don’t know the full story.”
“Which is?” I was curious, here was someone who didn’t hate me on sight.
“Woods wanted that land, but had offered the banks a price lower than what the banks needed to cover the mortgages and then you came along and offered a higher price. You still managed to get it at a price considerably lower than what it was worth. I can’t blame you for doing that, I blame the banks, they could have placed a more realistic valuation on it.”
“That would be the case if I intended to farm all of the property, but I’m not, so I won’t be able to get the full value from the land that I would if I farmed it.”
“If you’re not going to farm it, what will you do?”
“I intend to have a flood mitigation dam built on my land. I will provide the site and the Government has indicated that it will cover the construction costs. I will find myself with a lake that I can stock with fish and people will be able to fish there.”
“And I suppose that you will charge them for the privilege?”
“No, there will be no charge, access will be free, and the initial stocking of the dam will be at my expense. I would hope that subsequent fish stocks will be financed by the users.”
“That seems fair enough. Woods won’t like that one little bit, he bought Burroughs store and has already started to raise his prices, you providing free fish will cut into that part of his market. You really do know how to make enemies, don’t you?”
“I haven’t even tried yet, wait until I do.”
“Do you want an ally, someone to lend a hand from time to time?”
“Are you volunteering?”
“Yes. I’m Tanya Burroughs.”
“I’m pleased to meet you Tanya Burroughs. I’m James Parsons and I’m new in town.”
“You don’t say, I’d never have guessed it seeing as how I know just about everyone in this place. Okay, let’s get these copies for you.” She picked them clippings and carried them to the copier. “Why are you interested in the insurance companies and the floods?”
“It’s part of an argument that I will put forward to the State Water Authority when I apply to them to over-rule the Council’s refusal to grant me permission to build, which I know they will, this dam on my own property.”
“Edward Woods will be out rallying support as soon as he hears about this.”
“That’s why I’m gathering all the ammunition I can find.”
“I’m going to offer my support as a Research Assistant if you need me.”
“I need you, this will cut my preparation time down quite significantly, thank you.”
“I think that I’m going to enjoy this, the current young Edward Woods has been a pain in the arse these past couple of years because I won’t go out with him. This will help me because he won’t dare ask me now because Daddy will tell him no to, and he always does what Daddy tells him to.”
“The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree then.”
“Why would you say that?”
“I understand that Edward Senior is now enjoying his third wife, a newer model than the older discarded model. I understand that there was a bit of a scandal involved in that divorce.”
“You could say that, he was having it off with the new and improved model and the old model threatened to divorce him, so he spread rumours around that she had been free and easy with her affections and he launched a pre-emptive strike and with his legal team going at it full on, simply blew her out of the water. Poor woman never stood a chance.”
“Not a lot has changed then.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I’ll tell you some time, but not just yet, I want it to be a surprise when I drop it on him from a great height. I’ve just had a thought, have you had your lunch yet?”
“No, but I’ve brought a sandwich with me.”
“I can do better than a sandwich, join me, please?” I put on my very best pleading look.
“Very well, but not at any of the eateries around town, the people aren’t ready to see the two of us together just yet. Having discounted local hotels and snack bars, do you have any bright ideas?”
I took a pen and piece of paper from her desk and wrote my address on it. “Be there in half an hour, and that will give me time to fix something special and to think of a justification for you to call in to my place.”
She screwed up the paper and threw it into the bin. “I don’t need your address, don’t forget I used to live there.”
“Sorry about that, my bad, I sort of forgot about that.”
“That’s okay, I’ll see you.”
I left to prepare a feast for us. Not really, I just threw together a platter with sliced meats and salad type things to stuff into a half battard (a cross between a small baguette and a Vienna loaf) along with a range of dressings.
“This is nice.” Tanya said as she wiped the blob of honey mustard dressing from the corners of her mouth. “It sure as hell beats my humble egg and lettuce sandwich.”
“Thank you. Now what would you like, tea, coffee or something else?” I said as I gathered up the plates and headed for the kitchen.
“Coffee sounds good,” she said as she followed me into the kitchen, “I’ll give you a hand.” She looked around the room. “I notice that you’ve hung onto the slow combustion stove.”
“Yeah, I did think about buying one of those new-fangled electric jobs, but decided against it. Firewood is free and plentiful and it also heats up the water for my shower. I’m pretty domesticated, I even do my own laundry right down to the ironing.”
“My, you will be a great catch for some lucky young woman. I might have tried for you myself but I can’t see myself living with a pariah that no-one will talk to.” It was then that she noticed the portrait that I’d taken from the living room wall and was now leaning against the kitchen wall. “Now there’s a fine looking couple.”
“I thought so, but I just couldn’t live with them looking down on me for stealing their home from them. So you know them do you?”
“Of course I do,” She addressed the painting, “Hi Gramps, Gramma. What do you plan to do with them?”