The great world, 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 Étranger 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
Fly Away Peter
Harland’s Half Acre
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
PEOPLE ARE NOT always kind, but the kind thing to say of Jenny was that she was simple.
Children whose mothers were cooking and found they were short of something, breadcrumbs or a kilo of flour, would set up a wail at the thought of having to go down to Keen’s and fetch it. ‘Aw no, mum! Why me? It’s Brett’s turn. Make Brett do it!’
It wasn’t the walk they objected to, though it was far enough, down the hill and off the main road to the river, or even the interruption to their favourite programme on TV. It was the odd feeling you got when you stood on the doorstep with the bead curtain still clattering behind you and saw the old woman half-sprawled on the counter there, breathing like a big fish that had just been hauled out of the river and stranded. Sometimes she was asleep. You would have to poke a finger into the wool of her cardigan and she would start up and look around in a wild sort of way, then, when she saw that she knew you, give a wet smile.
But simple was the wrong word for her, or so smaller kids thought, because the real thing about Jenny, as she flopped about with her thick arms and shuffly slippers, was that she was likely to say things, and do things too, that you weren’t expecting and could make neither head nor tail of.
They felt too a kind of doubt she raised about the order of things. She was ancient, over sixty, but grown-ups treated her as if she was six. You could tell that from the way they spoke to her.
Real children looked at Jenny Keen and she was neither a nice old lady nor a stranded fish, neither a grown-up nor another bigger kid. So what was simple about her?
She was slumped now with one elbow on the flaking sill, looking out across the yard, past the clothesline and the rotting pepper tree, to where her brother was sitting at the edge of the river, just where the bank shelved to the stream.
The river was wide, this side of it sunlit, the other in shadow. Digger had a line out and every now and then he jiggled it, but he wasn’t fishing. When Digger does something he gets absorbed. The whole of him under the old felt hat is drawn to such a pitch of concentration you can feel it, she can, even at a distance; it can be frightening. What he was concentrating on now was the other feller’s talk. The line was a bluff to make the talk or the listening easier.
She made a face. She pushed her tongue up under her lip and squinted. She rubbed the back of her head where the hair was hacked off short as a man’s. ‘C’mon Dig,’ she said out loud. ‘Givvus a break.’
The two men sat apart but had their heads together, you could see that: Digger in an old sweater that was loose at the elbows and had a couple of good-sized holes in it that she meant to mend; the other feller, Vic, in a smart-looking overcoat. He was the same age as Digger but looked younger because he took care of himself. He was always very well turned out. He sat now with his shoes, which were new and well polished, set down very carefully in the dirt. She noticed the shoes because each time he came they were different, he must have a dozen pairs.
She narrowed her eyes, trying to get the gist of what they were talking about – it was the third time he had been here this week. She couldn’t actually hear anything, not at this distance, but if she really put her mind to it she could sometimes pick something up. Not always. But after a minute or two, with nothing coming through, she made a huffing sound, got up, went in behind the shelves of the store into the kitchen, and took a peek at the oven.
This was more like it. Scones. Scones were her long suit. They were coming on nicely.
She went back, leaned her elbows on the linoleum of the counter, and was just beginning to get comfortable when she saw that two magpies had flapped down and were perched now on the clothesline, shifting their heads from side to side in an abrupt, interested way and keeping watch. It was the end of any consolation she might have got out of the scones.
She had a war on with the magpies. She had lots of wars, but this was her fiercest and most continuous.
Big black-and-white brutes with sharp little eyes and even sharper beaks, she hated them, and wondered really what they had been put in the world for except to be a torment to smaller creatures. They strutted about as if they owned the place and were just waiting to take over. As if they had been given control of it; to spy and patrol up and down and peck and punish. Black and white, like bloody nuns.
If she put out the baking-dish, for instance, where she’d just cut up the last of a bread pudding, they would all swoop down, a dozen or more, all jostling, and the little birds, the wrens and finches, would be too scared to come near. ‘Get away,’ she’d yell, and kick out with her boots. ‘This isn’t for you.’
But she couldn’t be there all the time. She had housework to do and the shop to watch. They’d parade about then as i
It was a war that had been going on for years. It was on a daily basis. Sometimes she won, sometimes they did. But there was only one of her and heaps of them, and they kept coming.
Occasionally an old feller would fall victim to one of the feral cats; or he’d choke on a lump of bread, or a kid with a slingshot would get him. But before you knew it September would be round and there would be babies again, except that these babies were as big as adults and just as fierce, but black, they were born black. So there was no way in the world that you could win.
She had a war on with cats as well, the ferals, but she had inherited that one. It wasn’t personal. She kept it on out of loyalty to her mother, to stop the lazy buggers from lying down and sunning themselves in the flowerbeds and flattening the plants, though there were no plants much any more, just a few straggly gerbera, a rosebush or two and a patch of mint. It was partly to make up to her mother for letting the garden go that she kept after the cats.
They were huge. When they stretched out in their matted black or grey fur they were like old felt rugs with just the red of an eye in them, that could suddenly come alive and snarl or show a claw. ‘Garn,’ she’d tell them, ‘don’t try that on me!’ Every now and then, out of habit, she would slosh a bucket of mop-water at them.
These were her open wars. The others she had to be cunning about.
The young fellers and their girls, for instance, who came into the shop just to tease and make a nuisance of themselves, picking things up and putting them down again just to aggravate. She had to stop herself from yelling at them, telling them off. ‘Look youse, if yer gunna buy that tinna jam just buy it, don’t stand there chuckin’ it about.’ But if you did that there would be trouble. For one thing, they were customers, and for another they were dangerous. They had spiked hair, green some of them, and the girls were all in black like widows, and they had earrings, even the boys did, and tattoos. ‘How much is this?’ one of them would ask while another one got off with a Picnic bar or a packet of crisps. ‘See ya,’ they’d call, letting the door slam, and she would shout after them ‘Drop dead!’ – but under her breath.
Her fourth war, which she also had to wage in silence, was with this feller Vic. It went back years.
‘So waddazee want?’ she had demanded when he first turned up. ‘Who is ’e?’
Dumb, that was. She knew no better in those days. That wasn’t the way to find out.
‘A bit of a chat.’ That’s all Digger would tell her. ‘’E’s a mate.’
A mate! Men had mates. She had never even had a friend. All she had ever had was Digger, and that’s just what she had against him, this Vic. He butted in. He got between them. He took Digger off.
The first time he turned up she thought he was a ghost, he was that washed-out looking. As pale as potatoes.
‘Who are you?’ she challenged.
He was standing there in an old army coat that fell to his ankles, all chapped and unshaven, with a short back and sides and his blondy hair sticking up in peaks. You could have blown him over with just a puff. She was younger then. Pity she hadn’t done it and got him out of the way once and for all, and saved herself the next forty years. He would have gone over like ninepins.
‘I’m Vic,’ he said, as if he expected her to know.
If he wasn’t a ghost she didn’t know him from Adam.
She looked at him hard and saw that for all his being such a tuppence worth of God-help-us he was pretty keen on himself. ‘Digger about?’ he asked, casting little looks around and ignoring her.
‘Of course ’e’s about,’ she snapped. ‘’E’s off somewhere.’ She jerked her head towards the river, not to be too specific (let him do his own finding), and stood with her hands shoved down into the pockets of her cardigan and watched him trudge off with his ears sticking out and the coat hanging from his thin shoulders. She knew where Digger was, all right. He was out the back.
‘So waddazee want?’ she demanded when Digger appeared at last and saw him mooching about there under the she-oaks. She wasn’t going to be fobbed off with this business about mates. ‘What’s ’e after?’
Digger’s face clouded and he was a long time replying. ‘Nothing much,’ he said, his eyes away there. He didn’t seem all that anxious to go down and meet him.
‘Listen, Dig,’ she had said, lowering her voice, ‘I could get ridduv ’im.’
‘No,’ Digger said after a minute. ‘He’s all right. He’s a mate.’
He went down across the yard, ducking under the line, that was low on its props, to where the fellow in the coat had turned and could see him. He looked so forlorn there, for all his tallness, that she might have felt sorry for him; but she had sensed something in him, first thing at the door, that made her wary. He was stronger than he let on.
She watched them face one another.
They stood a long way apart. Digger was nodding his head and she could tell from the pitch of his shoulders what his eyes would be like; he was an open book, Digger. Then he moved, touched this Vic very lightly on the shoulder and they turned away together under the she-oaks.
She couldn’t tell at that distance whether they were talking or just sitting in silence.
If it was talk it had the tense, quivering quality of long silence.
She was a pretty good judge of silence. If you lived with Digger you had to be.
Since then he had been turning up on a regular basis every three or four months – till these last weeks.
It was always the same. Digger afterwards would be as silent as the grave; he couldn’t be reached, you couldn’t get through to him. She’d flop about like a wounded bird, not knowing what to say or do that would bring him back to the table or into the house even, he’d got so far off. She would try to be quiet with the dishes, but each time her hands let her down and they would clash and bang. When he laid his knife and fork down and went out, she would watch him wandering about there in the moonlight, walking up and down under the clothesline, lost in himself.
Digger had other visitors, also mates, but they didn’t affect him the way Vic did, and they didn’t come so often. That’s what she had against him.
Ern, one was called. Another was a jolly, one-armed fellow called Douggy Bramson. He was the one she felt easiest with. For one thing, he had a bit of conversation and wasn’t afraid to share it with you, he enjoyed a joke. Then there was the sleeve tucked up neatly with a pin; it aroused a soft feeling in her. Something missing. She tried not to look at it but couldn’t help herself. Douggy understood that and didn’t mind. Once, when he caught her at it, he winked.
Douggy kept poultry out at Regent’s Park, near Parramatta. He always turned up with a dressed chook.
They were Digger’s mates from away back. She knew that much because old times was what they talked about while they downed a pot of tea and a couple of pikelets. Hovering about behind them, fetching butter or strawberry jam, she would pick up snatches of what they had to say: names, odd bits of stories. She tried to keep the names in her head in case one day the men who owned them turned up, but they never did.
Mac was one name. Jack Gard was another. Jack Gard had eaten forty-two boiled eggs once at a show up near Tenterfield, and Ern told this story pretty well every time he came. He laughed each time as if the story was new and the others hadn’t heard it, and said, ‘Can you credit that? Forty-two bloody hard-boiled eggs at a single go. Waddaya think a’ that, eh Missus?’
He was noisy, Ern, but Douggy was the one who asked for more pikelets and told her how good they were.
Once or twice what they talked of was the great world.
Occasionally, too, the name that came up was Vic’s. She pricked her ears up then,
‘Seen Vic lately?’ they’d say, ‘Vic Curran? – Oh, ’e’s been down again, has ’e, t’ see ya? Good.’
They knew nothing more than she did. They were fishing for information. They waited, so did she, for Digger to come across with something, but he never did.
He could drive you wild, Digger, with his secrets and his silences. She had learned to live with it. Sitting quietly together over a cup of tea, around nine say with the table cleared and Digger working on some bit of a thing he was fixing, leaning close up to it with his glasses on the end of his nose while she got on with her knitting, she would find his voice in her head, and so clear that she automatically answered it. But when she looked up he was lost in his work. He hadn’t spoken. Or if he had it was without thinking.
Still, there were times when he did speak up, and abruptly enough to startle her. ‘You and me and Billy –’ he would say with the hint of a laugh in his voice, and she would jump right out of her skin.
‘What?’ she’d say. ‘What Billy?’
There was a Billy, only she didn’t think Digger knew about him. Billy the Rigger. Once, years back, she had gone off to Brisbane with him.
‘I told you. Our brother Billy.’
He would have a story then, one of the little incidents of their childhood that he recalled and she did not, though she was three years older. Involving a tyre their father had rigged up under the pepper tree as a swing – he would have been two years old then, could he really remember these things? – or a shoebox full of silkworms, and as he described it she would begin to hear again the rustling of them and see the fat little creatures, all silvery but with darker feet, lifting their heads as they munched and moved about among the leaves; feel the breath too of a smaller kid on the back of her neck. Was that Billy?
She could have turned her head then and seen him, but she had to protect herself; she didn’t want him to become too real. If he did she would only miss him when he was gone again or he’d start growing up and become a nuisance. If she let that snuffling little kid with the stream of snot in his nose (which she would not turn and wipe) start growing, he’d end up being sixty years old and right here with them. Then she’d be in a pickle. More sheets to wash, another couple of potatoes to peel, another smelly towel beside the tub, more snores and sniffles. He’d butt in.