Harlands half acre, p.1
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Harland's Half Acre


  About the Book

  Frank Harland’s life is centred on his great artistic gift, his passionate love for his father and four brothers, and his desire to regain the Harlands’ lost prosperity. Phil Vernon, growing up alone in the midst of a demanding family, is a boy when he first meets Frank Harland, but he is inexorably drawn into the Harlands’ circle. Through the interlinked lives of the two families, David Malouf explores solitude and society, possession and dispossession, the obsessions and violence of family life and love, illuminating the larger world of events and imagination. A revised edition of this seminal Malouf novel, now with an Afterword from the author.

  Contents

  Cover

  About the Book

  Title

  1 Killarney

  2 An Only Child

  3 Knack

  4 Nephews

  5 Harland’s Half Acre

  6 The Island

  7 Afterword

  Also by David Malouf

  Copyright Notice

  Loved the Book?

  Killarney

  [1]

  Named like so much else in Australia for a place on the far side of the globe that its finders meant to honour and were piously homesick for, Killarney bears no resemblance to its Irish original.

  It is lush country but of the green, subtropical kind, with sawmills in untidy paddocks, peak-roofed weatherboard farms, and on the skyline of low hills, bunyah pines, hoop pines and Scotch firs of a forbidding blackness. Tin roofs flare out of an acre of stumps. Iron windmills churn. On all sides in the wet months there is the flash of water. These are the so-called lakes. Rising abruptly around fence-posts to turn good pasture for a time into a chain of weed-choked lily ponds, they are remnants of a sea that feeds one of the great river systems of the continent – fugitive, not always visible above ground, but attracting at all times of the year a variety of waterfowl and real enough to have had, when the native peoples were here, an equally poetic name that no one has bothered to record.

  Harlands are brought up on the story of how they won and then lost the land.

  First the overland trek from somewhere beyond Tamworth into an unsettled area that was immediately, to the three brothers, so much like home (so much that is like a place they had never laid eyes on but whose lakes and greenness were original in their minds) that their breaking out of a gap to see it laid mistily before them was like a recovery and return. ‘Killarney,’ they breathed and were there.

  Possession was easy. One brief bloody encounter established the white man’s power and it was soon made official with white man’s law. Subsequent occasions, if less glorious, are still recounted with Irish pride in the extravagance of their folly. Within a generation the Harlands had squandered most of what they owned and were reduced to day-labouring for others; or, like young Clem Harland, to grubbing a livelihood from odd patches of what was once a princely estate.

  A dreamy, fresh-faced, talkative youth, not keen on hard work, he had been spoiled by his mother, half-educated at a boarding school at Toowoomba and had his twelve acres in a direct line from the eldest of the Harland brothers, Jack. He married early a woman several years older than himself, a draper’s daughter from Harrisville, a passionate girl whose awkward intensity put stolid men off – but not Clem.

  Lying in bed together in the spare, clean one-roomed house that was full of the moonlit reflection of chairbacks, they would have time for talk. While she filled the chairs with figures whose names she did not know – or not yet – he would be laying out for her his boyish notions of the life they were to share.

  He was full of notions, all cloudily unreal. She was waiting for him to grow out of them. For them to be drained out of him by the seven days a week of milking and feeding and sluicing out the bails, of driving the cattle to pasture and hefting the cans full of frothy saltish milk to the bench beside the road. She was attracted by his dreams but her own life was grounded in what she could touch. She could do no more for the moment than help him over his time of useless yearning and believe that the routine of daily existence, as it toughened and refined him, would bring him home at last to the actuality of things.

  She would lie awake feeling the weight of his arm across her and listening in the dark to the drawing of his breath, to the slow mysterious power of life in him. Sometimes when he was out of the house she would take up a shirt she was about to scrub at the washboard and be overwhelmed by his hot presence, or, weighing in her palm the little mouth organ he played after tea, would put her lips to it.

  She sought no tunes of her own. The touch of wood and metal was enough, and the echo of his breath. Then there were her chairs, and the rosebushes she was determined to bring back from the wild, the eggs she had to get down on her knees to find, following the chooks into their brooding-places in the grass, the set of stepped canisters on the top shelf of the dresser, her satin-lined sewing basket with its darning-egg and thimble, and the quilt that covered their sleep.

  She had made that herself while she was waiting for her stale maidenhood to be over, out of some old calico tablecloths and a set of green velvet curtains from her mother’s lounge, and given time she thought she could make something of Clem as well. She was very determined. She had refused to be left on the shelf or to accept that the feeling she had for the world, and all its visible touchable objects, had no life beyond her.

  What she failed to see was that talk for Clem was its own reality. It was to him what drink had been to others of the Harlands, or cattle, or land. He made himself up out of it. He made the world up out of it. His cloudy speculations, the odd questions he put, the tales he told of experiences that had come to him at different times and places, were flesh and spirit to him because they touched on what he was most deeply moved by, the mystery of himself.

  ‘Listen,’ he would begin, his voice low with excitement, ‘there was this time – I was sixteen or seventeen, about that age – anyway, a youngster – you know, full of the first urge of things. Everything, I don’t just mean women,’ and he would grin and look shyly away, especially if it was a woman he had begun to charm. ‘Well, I was comin’ back after a dance, barefoot, with my boots over my shoulder – I didn’ wear boots much in those days, except f’ dancin’ – and as I come down past Mackays – you know the place, there’s that old peppertree just at the turn of the road – well, I was a bit tired, from the dancing an’ that, and from yarning outside with the boys, an’ I thought I saw something. There was this mob in the horse-paddock, all shiftin’ about in the moonlight with the moon playin’ on ’em, and what do I see suddenly but this girl? Right in among the horses and sort of rolling over their backs like an acrobat. She was naked of course.’ He swallowed. His adam’s apple went up and down and his eyes were wide above the tanned cheeks. ‘White, she was, in the moonlight, and naked like a mermaid slipping in and out of the waves. So I jumped up into the tree to get a better look. Only the moment I took my eyes off of ’er she was gone.’ The disappointment hit him as if it were new. He shook his head. ‘I just sat there, looking, waitin’ t’ catch another sight of ’er, and must of dozed off, ’cause next thing I knew it was light, a lovely sunrise like streaky bacon, and I realised I was hungry. I got down pretty smart then in case someone saw me and thought I was cracked.’

  He stopped, grinned, his adam’s apple climbed and fell.

  All his stories were like this. Evocative. Inconclusive.

  ‘Well,’ he would enquire after a pause, ‘what do you make of it?’ But the real question was ‘What do you make of me?’

  He was deeply puzzled by himself and went in hope that one of his listeners might see a point in what h
e had to tell that would turn him, in his own eyes, from a vague and shadowy figure to a clear one.

  His wife found these stories distressing.

  ‘Clem,’ she would complain, ‘that’s all rot.’

  ‘Is it, love?’

  He wasn’t at all abashed. His eyes were clear, round, bright with anticipation. He was waiting, shyly submissive, for her to enlighten him with her doubts.

  ‘Anyway, you already told it to me.’

  ‘Did I?’

  ‘Yes, you did. An’ it was different.’

  She would turn away in the lumpy bed. They already had one child, just eighteen months, blowing wet bubbles beside them, and she was expecting another.

  ‘Madge? Madge? You aren’t mad at me, are you?’

  He would reach his hand out then to comfort or assuage her, or to follow a line of excitement in his story that had, all along, been the real object. What stirred him was what his telling most vividly created, that image of an earlier self standing barefoot with his boots over his shoulder, and his passionate yearning given the shape, in moonlight, of a naked girl among horses, a mermaid in the waves of an ocean he had not yet seen. When she softened and turned he had proof of himself. It was all real.

  ‘Oh, Clem Harland, you’re impossible,’ she moaned. ‘What am I going to do with you?’

  He laughed softly and appeared to make amends but was delighted with himself.

  There were no wolves here, except in the stories they had brought with them into this half of the world, but she thought of the night as a grey wolf prowling beyond the house, and of the stars as its teeth. They were children, and she the stronger, holding each other hard against the dark.

  The second child was again a boy. They called him Frank after her father, as they had called the first one Jim after his. Six months later, with the two little boys on his hands, he was a widower. He was twenty-three.

  It was all so sudden. He couldn’t believe it. In the first days he was dumb with grief. He stumbled about the empty house with the children in his arms, or sat on the bed while they slept, like an older child who has wakened, found himself alone and is too numb with fear to weep. Often he would snatch the children up so that they woke and cried. He would occupy himself then with comforting them. Sometimes, even at night, he would go out and confront the rosebushes.

  A rose thorn it had been. Blood poisoning. So sudden. He couldn’t believe it.

  He clung to his boys, nursing them as well as he could and refusing all help. There was a feminine side to him that made tending the children, bathing and changing them, feeding them, walking them up and down, feeling them nuzzle and squirm against him while he mouthed lonely baby-talk, a pleasure he would have been shy of admitting. He let the farm go.

  But the cows suffered if they were not milked and he had to attend to them as well, to their feed and to the filling and hefting of the cans – every morning and afternoon the same cans, with the day’s milk swinging as he took its weight and walked three times back and forth to the road. He lost himself in the routine.

  There was in him, after all, a recognition of the priority of these things. They were fixed, they demanded submission. He accepted the work now and let his grief be subsumed in it.

  The two little boys, forever trotting at his heels, plucking at the seat of his pants and murmuring, were a joy but also a hindrance. They were an odd sight, the father, not much more than a boy himself, and the two ragged children. Women took pity on him. They swept the little boys up in an ecstasy of cries and hugs and offers of motherly affection that included the young father, and the third of them, after a few months’ trial, he married.

  By this time the older boy, Jim, was five and a bit; he could fend for himself. But Frank, once the new wife was pregnant, was a problem, and though he had never considered it when he had the two children to manage alone, Clem agreed now, after many nights of shame and self-accusation, to send the younger boy away. He had a sister, several years older than himself, who was married to a fruit farmer at Glen Alpin near Stanthorpe; they had just lost a son in France. She would look after Frank for a year or two and see that he was clothed and fed. The child would be well cared for and Clem promised himself that he would ride across every couple of weeks to see him.

  [2]

  Frank Harland grew up with only the vaguest recollection of his other home.

  What he remembered was a special quality of warmth, and outside, a vivid greenness and an expanse of blue where they had sometimes gone for a dip. There was only a muddy dam on his uncle’s farm and rows of orderly trees, with knobbly twigs that developed swellings with a touch of pink in them that were flowers at first and later fruit – so round and luminous they looked as if they had never grown at all but had been hung for decoration under the leaves.

  The ground between the trees was uneven, baked to a hard grey. It crumbled in his fist. The earth he had known before was black. Where the land was not fenced and planted, it was all dry slopes broken by great round boulders of a grey-brown colour. They thrust up out of the earth and were tilted, or they littered the slope like giant eggs rolled playfully downhill. Sometimes, as a joke, a big one had another smaller one balanced neatly on top. There was a time, you felt, when this place must have been less quiet than it was now. Frank would lie still and imagine all those great stones being shifted, or rolling about and crashing in the dark.

  It was colder here, there were frosts. On winter mornings the trough in the yard would have a sheet of ice floating on it as thin as glass, and once, when a pipe to the sprinklers leaked, a crystal bud appeared and grew each day till there was a flower with huge ice-petals, on a stem nearly a foot thick.

  His aunt’s house had seven rooms instead of just one. There was a fireplace for which he carried wood, a carriage clock, the twin of one in his father’s house, and a gramophone that had been his cousin Ned’s. He was allowed to wind music out of it in a long, long trail. It made his aunt cry. The carriage clock, last relic of a vanished grandeur, he stared at and puzzled over.

  It soon became his favourite object here and the source, as he grew older, of his deepest musings. His aunt taught him to tell the time by it and he liked, at night, to hear it beat out the hours and halves, recalling how he had listened to the same sound in his father’s bed and telling himself that the same hour was being struck now at home. It wasn’t the same clock as the other, he understood that, but it kept the same time.

  The twin clocks in their different pozzies – his aunt’s on a table in the hall, his father’s on a shelf among mouse droppings and dead matches and brown apple cores – became the poles of his world. He kept them both in mind.

  In his other house he had slept with his father and Jim. He had his own bed here, in Ned’s room, and got lost in it.

  Those first nights, waking to a strange darkness, he had felt panic. Reaching out for Jim or for his father in the big cool spaces he had found nothing but sheet; though it would have been scarier of course if he had found the body of the cousin he had never seen, who was dead on the far side of the world, but whose shirts, all mended and ironed, hung in the wardrobe against the wall, and whose spirit haunted so much here. In particular a galleon made of glazed matchsticks that stood on the table beside his bed, and the blue kelpie Max, who was always waiting at the gate for Ned’s familiar whistle. And the mind of his Aunt Else.

  He saw sometimes, when she came in to get him up, that she was surprised to find him there, so little and sandy-headed; as if he had got into his cousin’s bed by stealth.

  It was a long time before he was used to the empty shirts in the wardrobe and the lonely bed.

  The house too seemed lonely and big. His aunt liked swept spaces but grieved over them. There was no closeness. There were no cows either. Only trees that changed throughout the year, were fed with powder and did not stray, whereas the cows back home had breathed and wandered
and then come lumbering in like clouds out of the grass. They ate fodder and salt-cake and would feed, the littlest ones, the poddies, from your palm. Their tongues were rough and warm, their noses moist, and they had a sweet-smelling breath. You could get right in among them and it was shitty but warm, and the sharp smell, which he never forgot, was the smell of where he came from. He thought he could smell it on his father, when he came each month to visit; but it might have been no more than the warmth he felt, and associated with the old byre smell, when he was picked up and carried inside his father’s coat.

  His two worlds were quite clear to him. They looked different, they smelled different, they had a different quality of warmth and cold. One was original, it was the place he came from. The other was the one he was in.

  His Aunt Else was a kind, strict, orderly woman, who disapproved of his father for some reason. That is, she listened to everything he said with a closed look on her face and a hard straight mouth. Uncle Fred said his father talked too much. ‘Blarney’ is what he called it.

  Talk was not thought much of in his aunt’s house and the boy grew up silent, learning to keep his thoughts to himself.

  He went to school, and in the afternoons and on holidays helped his uncle with the farm. It was a neat, well set-up orchard; his uncle was as particular about the running of it as his aunt was about the house. When the fruit was ready and the pickers came, he ran back and forth on messages between the kitchen and the pickers’ shed, which was a noisy sort of place with everyone in shorts and singlets. He helped carry plates to where they ate at trestle tables under the trees, counted boxes as they were packed and nailed down, and watched while they were loaded onto the trucks that would take them to the markets in Brisbane. In the evenings his Uncle Fred showed him how to make things with matchsticks. The man had big hands, very cracked and hard from work, but was marvellously delicate when it came to rolling the little logs, and full of fantasy in the creating of stockades and castles. They worked at the kitchen table while Aunt Else did the ironing, and built together a cabin, an open boat with paddles and a bridge that lifted up for ships to go through.

 
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