The conversations at cur.., p.1
About the Author
Also by David Malouf
About the Author
David Malouf is internationally recognised as one of Australia’s finest writers. His novels include Johnno, An Imaginary Life, Harland’s Half Acre, The Great World, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Prix Femina Etranger in 1991, and Remembering Babylon, which was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize and won the inaugural IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1996. He has also written five collections of poetry and three opera libretti. He lives in Sydney.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
An Imaginary Life
Fly Away Peter
Harland’s Half Acre
The Great World
12 Edmonstone Street
Bicycle And Other Poems
Neighbours In A Thicket
The Year Of The Foxes And Other Poems
First Things Last
Baa Baa Black Sheep
To Peter Straus
The Conversations at Curlow Creek
* * *
* * *
THE ONLY LIGHT in the hut came from the doorway behind him. Streaming in off the moon-struck plain, it cast his shadow across the packed earth floor and at an angle up the slab wall opposite but revealed nothing more in the stifling gloom than a stub of candle in the neck of a bottle and the rim of a wooden slop-bucket. Adair’s first thought was, There is no one here, he has escaped, the bird is flown. It surprised him, after his two-day ride, and considering all that depended for him on what the man might have to tell, that he felt relieved. What is it in us, what is it in me, he thought, that we should be so divided against ourselves, wanting our life and at the same time afraid of it? He stepped in under the lintel. Behind him it was the trooper now whose bulk filled the doorway and broke its light.
‘Get out of the light,’ he told him. ‘It’s as dark as the tomb in here.’ But the trooper hung there and did not move.
There was a strong smell on the place of some previous animal occupant, sheep or goat. That, and the choking sense of confinement, as if he had stepped underground, must have confused his senses or he would surely have been aware of the man’s breathing, and of course the moment he was – it was rackety, broken with phlegm, or perhaps his chest was injured – he made the fellow out, an agglomeration of rags with its knees drawn up, in which he distinguished, as his eyes adjusted, hands clasped over the knees, bare feet drawn together, a brow gleaming with sweat, though nothing as yet of the features beneath.
‘Let’s have a light in here,’ he told the trooper.
The head was raised at that. One eye was puffed and closed, the other blinked in puzzlement, and Adair was struck by its pulpiness and light. So alive!
He was here, right enough. Still drawing breath. A hulk of flesh still pouring out fetid warmth. The smell he had mistaken for goat was the stink of sour flesh and dirt, with a reminder of what nature had contributed to the slop-bucket.
Adair eased the satchel off his back.
‘Are you deaf?’ he demanded of the trooper, a lanky, slouching, thick-headed fellow in undershirt and unlaced boots, who continued to stand with his head dipped under the door-frame and one hand on the latch. ‘I thought I asked you to fetch a light.’
At last the fellow stirred himself.
‘I’ll see what I can dig up.’
No promises: the tone, to Adair’s fury, that mixture of grudging deference and surly independence that was typical, he thought, of the kind of riff-raff that had been recruited out here, disaffected veterans like this fellow, stubborn and indolent, with their own reasons for rethinking every order, who would do nothing till you lost your temper with them; raw youths, farmboys and such, who could ride a little, handle a gun, and were full of spark and spunk, but had no notion of rank or discipline. But the better part of his irritation, he knew, was tiredness. He had been riding, with little sleep and no chance to wash or change his clothes, for forty-eight hours and still had the dazzle of the plain in his head, an ache he could not throw off.
‘Well then,’ he said wearily, ‘do it, why don’t you?’
He continued to regard the bundle of rags, whose gaze he found uncomfortably absent. It was as if one sort of life had already been extinguished in him and the rude health of the other, which continued, was a mockery of both. The body, all that poundage of flesh and bone, however bruised it might be, however forfeit to the finalities of the law, was still going about its business of pumping blood, pouring out heat, supplying sap to an organism that knew no law but the one it had been following for what – thirty years? Drawing breath from the air, even in this filthy place, and the nourishment it needed to push all that bulk, moment by moment, into an open future. He reeled a little. It was his own body reminding him that he had not eaten, that it craved rest.
‘You can leave that,’ he told the trooper, who was fumbling with the latch. He had a horror, suddenly, of the dark. ‘Just leave it open a little. And hurry with that light.’
‘My name is Adair,’ he announced when the trooper had gone. ‘They’ve sent me up to see about tomorrow.’
He did not name the business, but it hung in the close air as something palpable, a shadow for which, ten hours from now, this fellow in the corner would provide the substance, the necessary weight that would take it out of the realm of official decree into choking event, then recorded fact.
The man, dipping one shoulder and pushing sideways, shifted that weight, and the movement, slight as it was, drew from him an intake of breath that seemed deafening in the stillness.
‘Where’s that damned fellow with the light,’ Adair asked himself, and was tempted to go to the door and call. Kelsey, was it? No, Kersey. He felt he could not stand another moment of breathing the man’s presence in the dark, the mark he had set on the place with his stench, the noisy snuffling up of the mucus in his nose.
In the profession Adair followed death was a constant possibility, part of the deal you made in submitting your body to the world of action and risk. But for this very reason you never considered it. As if allowing no entry to the thought stopped the sharpened blade from entering as well, turned bullets in the air by a kind of magic, closed all the approaches down which cannon-balls might come screaming and singing. The armour that protected you, the enchanted zone you walked in, depended on your refusal to accept that your death, your actual physical removal from the universe and from your own meaty presence and weight and breath, had either a place on the map or an hour in the sequence that was measurable time. But this man’s death was announced. It was certain. It made the stink, the deep-chested rackety breath, an irrelevance, mere physical activity that had not yet caught up with the facts, unless the body, as its brute force and rude health intended, was to go on past dawn tomorrow. But that was to consider only nature. What was in operation here was the law.
‘I thought,’ the man said, his voice thick with phlegm, or it may have been the pain
‘No,’ Adair told him. ‘I’m a trooper. Like the others.’
There would be no priest – had he really expected it? Where did he think he was? There were only two priests in the whole god-forsaken colony. ‘Have they fed you?’ he enquired in his official voice.
The man nodded.
‘And water? Have you got water?’
The head indicated a pitcher at his right hand.
‘Well then,’ Adair said.
All a man might want in a place like this, at the end of a long road going nowhere. Barring a priest.
He had not eaten himself since morning and it was almost nine. Once again he felt the pinch in his belly. He had drunk an hour ago at a creek – the same one, in fact, that ran below the hut and which touched the air here with its mountain coolness, though he had not known it then.
Riding down the rocky slope towards it, he had heard night birds calling from the line of trees that marked its course, and had registered their difference from the ones he had been hearing by day – a habit of observation that belonged to his military training but had also preceded it, and went on in him even when it could have no use.
He could have lain down then and slept, stretched out on the hard earth and taken advantage of the blessed gift of it, the body’s easy capacity for absenting and renewing itself, but this wasn’t the place to fall asleep in, to give yourself up, even for a moment, to the moonlight that stretched in every direction to the limitless horizon.
He thought of stories he had been told, old folk-tales, of men who had lain down and fallen asleep under a familiar hedge or on the shady side of a rock, and when they woke discovered that half their lifetime had passed, forty years. You could wake up here, he thought, as he stooped to the cold mountain stream, heard the unfamiliar birds hooting and calling out of the dark, watched his horse lower its hairy lip to rippling moonlight, and find whole centuries had elapsed, and how would you ever know it? Who would there be, when you came back rubbing your eyes and yawning, to recognize you or know your name?
My God, he had thought. What a place! He had never in all his life felt so far from the things that were closest to him, from any object that gave him back the comfortable assurance of being in a world of his own kind, a habitable place crowded with other lives – even the lives of ghosts.
Pure tiredness that had been. But now, again, he felt in his head the long ache of the moonlight out there that made nothing of steady nerves and a trained hand; the cold came right through your boots and into your belly, set its grip on your heart. He had that same sense of desolation here, in the cramped hut, because it was still in his head and all around them, that infinity of cold light. How much easier all this might be, he thought, if there were somewhere close by a stretch of companionable stone wall, a wayside cross, the sign of old enduring faith, with an offering at the base of a twist of honeysuckle or a bunch of lily-of-the-valley, a field, fallow perhaps, with just the straggling remnant, among cornflowers, of a crop raised a season back to feed farm animals or to be brought to the table in the form of warm, newly risen bread, on a plate with a blue Greek-key design on it like their everyday ware at Ellersley . . . Pure tiredness. A weariness beyond refreshment. He was dreaming on his feet.
‘I can leave you,’ he offered. ‘If you like. Or I can stay. It’s as you prefer.’
The man looked puzzled by this formality but did not appear to consider, either way. But he did not ask to be left, and Adair, turning away to the crack of light, shouted, ‘Hey there. What happened to that lamp?’ Then he dragged his satchel out, set it against the wall, and lowered himself, shoulders to the damp slabs, feet extended. The night air that flowed from the door was chill but clean. He turned his face to it in the hope that its touch would cure his tiredness and breathed.
Time enough to begin when they had some light in here.
They had all night.
Outside, under a calm sky, the two younger troopers, who were called Langhurst and Garrety, were alone at the fire, which was settled now to a nest of coals above which heat danced in smokeless waves.
Garrety, his hat over his eyes, lay stretched with his boots to the fire in an attitude of easy indolence that belied the speed with which he could snap his lean body into action.
This easiness, of conscience as well as nerve and muscle, was impressive to his companion, who saw it as an indication – not intended perhaps, but he was sensitive even to unintended suggestions – of his own deficiency; he sat hunched into himself with his knees drawn up, his forearms upon them and his big hands dangling. He was going over things, a habit, he found, he could not break, though it went ill with the life he had chosen and was one cause, he had decided, of that deficiency he was so sensitive to and which he was more and more determined to outface.
They had been together, the little group of them, for just on three months – not quite the earliest recruits to the new force that was to police the colony and keep a watch on the western tribes, but very nearly so. Before Jed Snelling was killed they had been four – the black who was with them, Jonas, did not count.
It was just long enough for them to have got to know one another too well; to have built up a store of watchful suspicions, resentments, sources of silent scorn and mockery, of little jockeyings for position, and alliances and betrayals, that sprang less from the grander enterprise they were engaged in than from such simple housekeeping matters as whose turn it was to hobble the horses or fetch water, how much one fellow had claimed of the evening stew, how often one broke wind and another changed his socks – Kersey wore none – or the frequency with which one of them said ‘If you foller me meanings’ and another ‘Holy Smoke!’
After Jed Snelling was gone things had changed. Kersey had been fond of Jed. They had made a team, a loose one, and he and Garrety, for all the scratchiness between them, another.
‘We’re a couple of old married men, ain’t we, Jed?’ Kersey had insisted.
This was an exaggeration. Jed was just nineteen, same as him and Garrety, and had been married four months.
But with Jed gone, Kersey had got panicky, afraid of being left out on his own. He still tried, Langhurst thought, in all sorts of ways, to keep on the right side of them, but it was Garrety he wanted to gang with, and he did it by making little cracks and digs that would set them going at one another. It was easy enough – they had always done so, but in a joking way. It was a game between them. But it seemed to Langhurst that Kersey tried now to give their old rivalry another colour, that was darker and came from his own nature.
He wasn’t their superior in rank, but his age, he was near forty, the fact that he had been two months longer in the force, and his bitter cynicism, gave him an advantage – at least Langhurst felt so. Garrety did not. Nothing put him at a disadvantage. Still, they were easier, more comfortable with one another, when Kersey was away.
They were the same age – Garrety by seven months the younger. Langhurst had believed at first that this might work in his favour but was not long in discovering his error. Garrety had been on his own, looking out for himself and finding ways to do a little better than survive, since he was nine years old. He had lived in the streets, sleeping in bins and doorways and in odd corners where a drunken officer or some lone woman had tossed him a bit of sacking to roll up in; picking up a coin or two by doing messages, making himself useful to carters or bricklayers, acting as a look-out for fellows who were setting two dogs on one another in the back yard of a pub. Later, when he had the muscle for it, he had worked as a cedar-getter, then as a breaker of horses. All this he told in a wry, laconic style as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. His lips were sealed – his soul too, Langhurst thought – on the worst things that had happened to him. They took place in the pauses between what he told, where only he saw them, and his slow, half-humorous style concealed it.
He was very easy with himself. Had the nature, Langhurst decided, of a c
This was a source of continual wonder to Langhurst, who felt he sweated over everything, either before or – which seemed even more shameful – after, and was at every moment self-consciously aware of the heaviness of his bones, the blood in his neck, in his puffy hands, in his cock. He also felt the pressure in him of words, of the need to get out into the open the feelings he was perplexed by or the thoughts he had been going over and needed to find words for if he was to get them clear.
Garrety appeared to have no such need. You had practically to take him by the neck and shake to get a dozen words out of him, and when they came they were mostly ironical, some humorous comment you had to work at to see the meaning of. What Langhurst missed, he found, was the tumble of competing voices round the table at home, where he had a sister and three younger brothers, all of whom had something to tell. He was impressed but intimidated by the presence in Garrety of so much unexpressed experience.
Experience, he thought. Is that the difference between us? Is that what I lack?
When he looked around at the world he found, though he tried to hide it, that practically everything was a puzzle to him: women, his own body, the stars, the odd, unexplained noises the country produced out of the dark, the soul, death, perdition. The earlier things, especially women, he thought anyone might be puzzled by, but the others, if conditions had been different, he might have been spared. He felt he had been disadvantaged by being made too aware of them – and then by being offered too little explanation of what they might be.
Garrety acted as if there was nothing in the world that a grown man need be puzzled by.
Of women he had no opinion at all except that it was a grand thing, any chance you got, to fuck them. Perdition he had never heard of, except as a weak oath he would have scorned to use. And once, on the subject of the soul, when Langhurst had rather gingerly brought it up, he had claimed he didn’t believe that he or any other fellow had one, and thought it useless to speculate.