Fly away peter, 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.
ALSO BY DAVID MALOUF
An Imaginary Life
Harland’s Half Acre
The Great World
The Conversations at Curlow Creek
12 Edmondstone Street
‘Interiors’ (in Four Poets)
Bicycle and Other Poems
Neighbours in a Thicket
The Year of the Foxes and Other Poems
First Things Last
Baa Baa Black Sheep
For Elizabeth Riddell
Fly Away Peter
Man is an exception, whatever else he is. If it is not true that a divine creature fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head.
Here is the bread of time to come,
Here is its actual stone. The bread
Will be our bread, the stone will be
Our bed and we shall sleep by night.
We shall forget by day, except
The moment when we choose to play
The imagined pine, the imagined jay.
ALL MORNING, FAR over to his left where the light of the swamp ended and farmlands began, a clumsy shape had been lifting itself out of an invisible paddock and making slow circuits of the air, climbing, dipping, rolling a little, then disappearing below the trees.
The land in that direction rose gradually towards far, intensely blue mountains that were soft blue at this time of day but would later approach purple. The swamp was bordered with tea-trees, some of them half-standing in water and staining the shallows there a tobacco brown. Its light was dulled by cloud shadows, then, as if an unseen hand were rubbing it with a cloth, it brightened, flared, and the silver shone through.
A vast population of waterbirds lived in the swamp, and in the paddocks and wooded country beyond were lorikeets, rosellas and the different families of pigeons – fruit-pigeon, bronze-wings, the occasional topknot or squatter – and high over all stood the birds of prey, the hawks and kestrels. But the big shadow was that of a bi-plane that all morning rose and dipped, its canvas drawn tight across struts, all its piano-wires singing. It was a new presence here and it made Jim Saddler uneasy. He watched it out of the corner of his eye and resented its bulk, the lack of purpose in its appearance and disappearance at the tree line, the lack of pattern in its lumbering passes, and the noise it made, which was also a disturbance and new.
Over behind him, where all this swampland drained into the Pacific, were dunes, shifting sand held together with purple-flowering pigweed and silvery scrub; then the surf – miles of it. You could walk for hours beside its hissing white and never see a soul. Just great flocks of gulls, and pied oyster-catchers flitting over the wet light, stopping, starting off again; not at random but after tiny almost transparent crabs, and leaving sharp, three-toed prints.
He had a map of all this clearly in his head, as if in every moment of lying here flat on his belly watching some patch of it for a change of shape or colour that would be a small body betraying itself, he were also seeing it from high up, like the hawk, or that fellow in his flying-machine. He moved always on these two levels, through these two worlds: the flat world of individual grassblades, seen so close up that they blurred, where the ground-feeders darted about striking at worms, and the long view in which all this part of the country was laid out like a relief-map in the Shire Office – surf, beach, swampland, wet paddocks, dry, forested hill-slopes, jagged blue peaks. Each section of it supported its own birdlife; the territorial borders of each kind were laid out there, invisible but clear, which the birds were free to cross but didn’t; they stayed for the most part within strict limits. They stayed. Then at last, when the time came, they upped and left; flew off in groups, or in couples or alone, to where they came from and lived in the other part of the year, far out over the earth’s rim in the Islands, or in China or Europe.
Holding one of them in the glasses he was aware of that also. This creature that I could catch so easily in my hands, feeling the heart beat and the strong wings flutter against my palms, has been further and higher even than that clumsy plane. It has been to Siberia. Its tiny quick eye has seen something big. A whole half of the earth.
The bi-plane appeared again, climbing steeply against the sun. Birds scattered and flew up in all directions. It flopped down among them, so big, so awkward, so noisy. Did they wonder what it ate? A hundred times bigger than any hawk or eagle its appetite would be monstrous. Did they keep their sharp eyes upon it?
Jim’s eye was on the swamphen. He had been watching it for nearly an hour with a pair of field-glasses provided by Ashley Crowther. There was a nest on a platform there among the reeds, with maybe five or six creamy-brown eggs.
Ashley Crowther was a young man, not all that much older than himself, who had been away to school in England and then at Cambridge, and had recently come back to manage his father’s land. He owned all the land beyond the swamp and from the swamp towards the ocean. The bi-plane was flying out of one of Ashley Crowther’s paddocks and was piloted, Jim guessed, by one of Ashley’s friends. There were regular weekend-guests at the homestead these days, young fellows, and also ladies, who arrived in automobiles wearing caps or with their heads swathed in voile against the dust of country roads, to ride, to eat big meals in the lamplit house and to dance to gramophone music on the verandah.
The swampland also belonged to Ashley, and because he was interested in the birds he had set Jim to watch it and to record its various comings and goings. It was a new idea that came from Europe, though Queensland in fact had passed a law to protect birds nearly forty years ago, before any other place in the Empire.
Ashley Crowther had sat on a log chewing a grass-stem and looked out dreamily over the swamp, and Jim had recognized right off a man he could talk to, even if they said nothing at all; and had shifted his feet, unused to this, and uncertain where it might lead. It wasn’t his place to make an opening.
‘Listen,’ Ashley had said. With no preliminaries, as if the whole thing had just that moment taken shape in his head, he laid out his plan; and Jim, who till then had been merely drifting, and might have drifted as far as the city and become a mill-hand or a tram-conductor, saw immediately t
He was twenty, and Ashley Crowther was a tall, inarticulate young man of twenty-three, who looked at times as if he was stooping under the weight of his watch-chain and who stumbled not only over words but over his own boots. But he had said ‘Well then, you’re my man,’ having that sort of power, and Jim was made. All the possibilities that for the past two years had tugged and nagged at him – the city, marriage, drink, the prospect of another thirty years of dragging his boot over sawdust in the Anglers’ Arms, of sitting reading the sports page with his feet propped on the bed-head while rain dripped into a basin on his bedroom floor, the sullenness and hard-jawed resentment of months that were all Sundays – suddenly hauled off and lifted. He was made free of his own life.
‘Jim’s a new man,’ his father told his drinking mates up at the pub with studied gloom. He had projected for Jim a life as flat, save for the occasional down-turn, as his own. It was inevitable, he declared, ‘for the likes of us.’
‘What does it mean,’ Jim had wanted to ask, ‘the likes of us?’ Except for the accidental link of blood he saw nothing in common between his father and himself and resented the cowardly acceptance of defeat that made his father feel this change in his fortunes as a personal affront. But he had had enough cuffs from the old man, over lesser issues than this, to have learned that there were some questions that were better not put.
‘You’re a bloody fool,’ the old man told him, ‘if you trust that lot, with their fancy accents and their newfangled ideas. And their machines! You’d be better off gettin’ a job in Brisbane and be done with it. Better off, y’hear? Better!’ And he punched hard into the palm of his hand.
There was in his father a kind of savagery that Jim kept at arm’s length; not because he feared to be its victim in the physical sense – he had been often enough and it was nothing much, it was merely physical – but because he didn’t want to be infected. It was of a kind that could blast the world. It allowed nothing to exist under its breath without being blackened, torn up by the roots, slashed at, and shown when ripped apart to have a centre as rotten as itself. His father had had a hard life, but that didn’t explain it. ‘I was sent out to work at ten years old by my old man. Put to the plough like a bloody animal. Sent to sleep in straw. All that, all that!’ But it didn’t account for what the man was. It had happened equally to others in those days; and besides, Jim might have argued, did you treat me any better? No, the baleful look his father turned on the world had no reason, it simply was.
He swallowed his resentment and determined to say no more. As for Ashley Crowther, he would take the risk. Something in the silence that existed between them, when they just sat about on stumps and Ashley crossed his legs and rested his chin in the palm of his hand, made Jim believe there could be common ground between them, whatever the difference. There was in Ashley a quiet respect for things that Jim also respected.
None of this had to be stated. Ashley was too incoherent to have explained and Jim would have been embarrassed to hear it, but he understood. All this water, all these boughs and leaves and little clumps of tussocky grass that were such good nesting-places and feeding grounds belonged inviolably to the birds. The rights that could be granted to a man by the Crown, either for ninety-nine years or in perpetuity, were of another order and didn’t quite mean what they said. This strange man with his waistcoat and his watch-chain, his spotted silk tie and Pommie accent, had seen that from the start.
But there was more. There was also, on Ashley’s part, a recognition that Jim too had rights here, that these acres might also belong, though in another manner, to him. Such claims were ancient and deep. They lay in Jim’s knowledge of every blade of grass and drop of water in the swamp, of every bird’s foot that was set down there; in his having a vision of the place and the power to give that vision breath; in his having, most of all, the names for things and in that way possessing them. It went beyond mere convention or the law.
There was something here, Jim thought, that answered his unasked question, ‘what does it mean, the likes of us?’, by cancelling it out in some larger view, and it was this that he was prepared to trust. The view was Ashley’s and it was generous. It made a place for Jim, and left room as well for the coming and going of a thousand varieties, even the most alien, of birds.
ASHLEY CROWTHER HAD come home after more than twelve years to find himself less a stranger here than he expected.
He had been at school in England, then at Cambridge, then in Germany for a year studying music, and might have passed anywhere on that side of the world for an English gentleman. He spoke like one; he wore the clothes – he was much addicted to waistcoats and watch-chains, an affectation he might have to give up, he saw, in the new climate; he knew how to handle waiters, porters, commissionaires etc. with just the right mixture of authority, condescension and jolly good humour. He was in all ways cultivated, and his idleness, which is what people here would call it, gave him no qualms. He took a keen interest in social questions, and saw pretty clearly that in the coming years there would be much to be done, stands to be taken, forces to be resisted, changes to be made and come to terms with. The idea excited him. He approved of change. With all that to think of he didn’t see that one had also to have a vocation, a job named and paid for and endured for a certain number of hours each day, to be a serious person.
Ashley Crowther was a very serious person. He was dreamy, certainly, and excitably inarticulate, but he liked what was practical, what worked, and in the three years since he came of age had owned four automobiles. Now he was interested in the newest thing of all, the air. He didn’t fly himself, but his friend Bert did, and he was quite content, as in other cases, to play the patron and look on.
In the crude categories that had been in operation at Cambridge, athlete or aesthete, he had found himself willy-nilly among the latter. He had never been much good at games – his extreme thinness was against him – and he not only played the piano, Chopin and Brahms, but could whistle all the Leitmotifs from The Ring. But his childhood had been spent in the open, he had never lost his pleasure in wide spaces and distant horizons, in climbing, riding, going on picnics, and the creatures he had been surrounded by in those early years had never deserted his dreams. Moving as they did in the other half of the world, far under the actualities of the daylight one, they had retained their primitive power and kept him in touch with a continent he had been sent away from at eleven but never quite left. Perhaps that is why when he came back at twenty-three he was not a stranger.
Waking up that first morning in the old house – not in his own room, the room of his childhood, but in the big main bedroom since he was now the master – he had been overwhelmed by the familiarity of things: the touch of the air on his skin – too warm; the sharpness of the light even at twenty to seven – it might have been noon elsewhere; above all, since it is what came closest to the centre of his being, the great all-embracing sound that rose from the dazzling earth, a layered music, dense but deeply flowing, that was clippered insects rubbing their legs together, bird-notes, grass-stems chaffing and fretting in the breeze. It immediately took him up and carried him back. He stepped out on to the verandah in his pyjamas – no need for even the lightest gown – and it was all about him, the whole scene trembled upon it. The flat earth had been transposed into another form and made accessible to a different sense. An expansive monotone, its excited fluting and throbbing and booming from distended throats had been the ground-bass, he saw, of every music he had ever known. It was the sound his whole being moved to. He stood barefoot on the gritty boards and let it fill his ear.
‘How can you do it?’ his friends back there had said, commiserating but admiring his courage, which they altogether exaggerated.
The phrase pleased him. It sounded solemn and final. But he was glad just the same to discover, now he was here, that he was not a stranger, and to feel, looking out on all this, the contentment of ownership and continuity.
It was his grandfather who had taken up the claim and put his name to the deeds; but he had died while the land was still wild in his head, a notion, no more, of what he had staked out in a strange and foreign continent that his children must make real. Ashley’s father had created most of what lay before him. Now it was his.
There was still everything to do – one saw that at a glance. But Ashley saw things differently from his father and grandfather. They had always had in mind a picture they had brought from ‘home’, orderly fields divided by hedgerows, to which the present landscape, by planning and shaping, might one day be made to approximate. But for Ashley this was the first landscape he had known and he did not impose that other, greener one upon it; it was itself. Coming back, he found he liked its mixture of powdery blues and greens, its ragged edges, its sprawl, the sense it gave of being unfinished and of offering no prospect of being finished. These things spoke of space, and of a time in which nature might be left to go its own way and still yield up what it had to yield; there was that sort of abundance. For all his cultivation, he liked what was unmade here and could, without harm, be left that way.
There was more to Ashley Crowther’s image of the world than his formal clothes might have suggested – though he was, in fact, without them at this moment, barefoot on scrubbed boards — or, since he was shy, his formal manners, which were not so easily laid aside.
After breakfast he changed into a cotton shirt, twills, boots and wide-brimmed hat and took a ride round his property, beginning with the little iron fenced enclosure where his parents, his grandparents and several smaller brothers and sisters were interred under sculptured stone.