The conversations at cur.., p.12
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       The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.12

           David Malouf
 
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  ‘Cold, eh?’ Carney said, hugging himself, his shoulders tense. ‘It gets cold here in the early hours. It’s a shock. The days are that blazing hot you don’t expect it.’

  Adair nodded. He could barely keep his teeth from chattering.

  ‘I’ve never got used to it, I never adjusted. It’s a different sort of cold – you know, to what I was used to. Up in the hills there, where we was hiding out, the nights got that cold it’d freeze the balls off you, it was like another hell. It’s not the cold we was born to, you see. Back home – you know, in Ireland – I could go barefoot, sleep rough, it never bothered me.’

  It’s not the place, Adair thought. It’s not the climate.

  The man must have caught hold of the thought. He lowered his head and sat a moment with the great bulk of his skull sunk between his knees. The breath through his nose was raspy. ‘It feels late,’ he said at last. ‘Do you by any chance have the time on you?’

  Adair, sprawling at an awkward angle on the dirt floor, reached into a trouser pocket and drew out his watch.

  It was a cheap one made of heavy alloy. There was a painted figure on the dial of a huntsman with a gun over his shoulder and at his heel a dog. It kept excellent time, but out of habit he held it to his ear before turning it to the weak light that flowed in from a crack in the door.

  Twenty-eight minutes past three.

  It seemed absurd in this place at the end of nowhere to be so particular about the minute, to set a value on precision when nothing demanded that a man be punctual except habit, or the belief that his own dignity, proof of the stage he had reached in the order of God’s creation, his grasp of the world’s inevitable progress, was dependent on timing his every activity, on fitting every station of his daily progress, through mealtimes and labour and prayer and sleep, to the regularity with which the sun rolled round the heavens and the hands of a clock could divide up the vast distances it travelled into spaces of human dimension, minutes, seconds, in which a man could hold his breath. Time can be freedom, it can free us. Joy. How far he had got from the orderly universe at the Park.

  Time was an obsession out here. He had thought it at first an anxiety, natural enough, about falling into the easy, un-British attitude of those who had wandered too far from Greenwich, or the many indolent and unreliable natives from India to the Caribbean and Brazil, who have never discovered its relation to lovely efficiency. But it had to do, he now believed, with something quite different – a preoccupation with space.

  There was the usual strictness here in the matter of milestones and fences, which was only to be expected in a place that set itself to bring what was wild within the bounds of order and measurement. But when it came to acres, especially of pastoral land in places as yet unentered, numbers grew hazy. Five hundred could easily, when everything was as yet merely notional, become five thousand. And beyond that were spaces so vast that to measure them by striding out and numbering the strides made the mind quail – and how in that case could the body hold out? To keep track of the minutes in such a place was to stake out an area that could be contained, comprehended. So many hours, days, years to be got through till a sentence was served or grain could be cut and the land ploughed again for planting, or to set one row of bricks upon another and raise a courthouse, a prison, a decent habitation.

  He was wandering. Looking up, he caught the keenness now with which Carney had his eye upon him.

  – In his case, so many hours before the drop. Unforgivable that he should have kept the man hanging.

  ‘Half-past three,’ he said.

  ‘Ah! I thought it would of been later.’

  Poor fellow, he had longer than he thought. And in fact half past was itself an approximation. It was twenty-nine minutes past. He had a whole minute, sixty seconds more than he had been told. Should I inform him? Adair wondered. Will it make a difference? The last minute might – one more breath! But this one?

  Of course neither this minute nor any of the minutes we have to get through between now and dawn mean anything special to me, Adair thought. And for one reason only. Because I have nothing to measure them against. Because, unlike this fellow here, I do not know, cannot guess, how much time has been allotted before the hour of my death.

  Carney meanwhile, who appeared to have lost track of his sociable self, was shuffling about to get comfortable on the dirt floor, scratching, mumbling. His way, perhaps, like an animal, of settling, rasping a nail against some bit of the surface of his skin to remind himself of the familiarity of his body, finding, in the pleasurable response of the blood to this minor irritation, the reassurance that it was there.

  Half-past three. Should I tell him? That the minute has ticked by? He was still holding the watch, feeling the metal beginning to warm in his hand. He leaned sideways – there was a pleasing pressure on the muscles of his hip, his body too was there – and put the watch away, but was still aware for a moment of its sturdy ticking.

  It had been Paddy’s; he had known it all his life. It was one of the first objects he had learned to love in his early days at Ellersley, and as a little lad of three or four had been allowed to sit up at the table in the big, stone-flagged kitchen and with the watch before him, without touching of course, follow the movement of the big hand round the dial. Follow too, as its shadow swept over them, the adventures, as he dreamed them up, of the huntsman and his dog, who were as real and familiar to him as the red-faced gamekeeper up at the Park, whose name was McManus and who had a dog called Flitch. But the huntsman on the watch was not squat and round-headed like McManus, and did not wear leggings, but was a tall slim fellow in a blue jacket, with boots and a cocked hat with a feather, and had a sports-gun over his shoulder, a gamebag, and at his waist a flask, and the dog was a pretty Irish setter with one foot raised as it trotted beside him.

  In the background was a tree with just a few leaves on it, which, when he learned to count, he had fixed at twenty – never more, never less; they did not fall. And there was a bird in the branches, but the huntsman did not see it, or if he did, was happy to let it be. It had its beak open, singing, and did not fly off.

  All this close observation and careful accounting, mixed in as it was with dreamy reflection, had been the activity, he saw now, of a particular turn of mind, a particular way of dealing with the world: stolid, obsessive, but some other quality was there as well, though it was less easy to name and the contradiction it made was all his own.

  Taking the watch out these days – it had been with him through all the years of his service, in Poland, in France, in the months he had spent in isolation as ‘contagious officer’ at the crossing on the Sava – was a reminder, if he needed one, of what was fixed and unchanging in him; the counterweight, there in his pocket, of his solemn self, a worn roundness he could reach for and weigh, heavy, crude, reliable, in his palm. It was some affinity he had recognized between them, rather than Adair’s being so childishly fond of the thing, that had made Paddy leave it to him. Or so he sometimes thought.

  It had sat on the table beside the old man’s bed the night he was dying, fat, round, too loudly ticking in the high attic room. Beside it on the wooden table-top, a candle-snuffer in its tray, a glass of water with the smudge of the old man’s saliva at the rim. He had gone up for just a moment to see how he was doing. ‘I’ve been here since five,’ the girl complained who had been set to sit with him. ‘Is no one coming to relieve me?’ He let her go, took her place on the chair, and the watch ticked out the minutes of his impatience to be away.

  In the close heat under the roof there was a sour smell of sweat and old dirt, and with it another that he had not encountered till now, and which, as the old man breathed it out, was the smell, he knew, of corruption, of a death that had already begun in the lungs and, as it came out of the mouth and nostrils, carried to him, sitting close by on the rush-bottomed chair, an apprehension too immediate, too hotly personal, that he was in the presence of death. He sweated at the closeness of it. As if, just by al
lowing himself to come so near, by leaning down to the head on the pillow – the rheumy eyes raised to his own, their blue ringed with dirty white, the mottled brow, the weight of the skull making a hollow in the greyish pillow – by concentrating the whole of himself on what Paddy was trying, without success, to tell him, he had caught it, the contagion.

  It was a foolish notion, and came, he knew, from his panicky fear. At nineteen, and preparing to be a soldier, he had thought enough of these things, though they had not till now registered themselves in the beating of his heart, the breaking out on his skin of cold sweat, to know that we catch that particular contagion with our first breath.

  He continued to sit, and what struck him after a time, as Paddy dozed and his lean cheek hollowed and puffed a little with his breath, was the change in his old friend’s features.

  Refined of their coarseness, of their broad, peasant look – ‘a good, old-fashioned Irish face,’ Eamon Fitzgibbon would have said, ‘with all the best in it of our stout Irish peasantry’ – the sharp cheekbones and jaw with their white stubble, the cropped head, the veins at the temple, even the nest of hair in the nostrils and creeping out of his ears, resembled those of a knightly Earl Marshal or early saint; as if none of the old fellow’s notorious oddities, his quirks of speech, his savagery at the expense of rivals, were to survive this common purging; as if no uncharitable reflection on the general character of men, no bitterness at what life had taught him, or curse at the wild injustice of things, had ever passed his lips. But they had! And as he sat listening to the long-drawn, rackety breath, which was like the noise some wooden contraption might make that had got out of kilter, he was determined to hang on to his own memory of them, not to allow this difficult nature, this old fellow who had loved him – and whom in his own way, which had too often been boyishly selfish and unseeing, he had loved in return – to be ennobled out of existence, made bland and acceptable. He laid the tip of his fingers to the old man’s wrist, which was dark and hard as a twig. The bleared eyes rolled towards him.

  ‘It’s me,’ he said. ‘Michael.’

  He felt obscurely that in insisting on his own identity, and in Paddy’s coming back far enough to recognize it, he could make the old man reassume his own.

  The eyes flickered. He pressed his fingers more deeply into the gristle between the bones.

  What he wanted to say was: Tell me something, Paddy, something scandalous. Give me a bit of the old intolerant scorn. Call up the rats and weasels and the pigs in mud. Be your old irascible, unforgiving self.

  The lips moved. Or he thought they did.

  I may be dyin’, but let’s have no bloody tight-arsed angels in the room, little lily-white altar boys with the weasel in their britches, chantin’ bloody responses at one end while the weasel goes its own way at the other.

  He thought he heard Paddy’s laugh.

  He leaned forward to look at the watch. He had come in for just a moment. Half an hour had passed. He was expected at the Park at half-past nine. He, Fergus and Virgilia were to take advantage of the long midsummer evening with a picnic in the woods, with maybe a bathe afterwards in the stream. It was warm enough. He was aware of the air at the half-open window and the gathering sound, far off, of birds.

  He was in his last week here and was determined, before he left, to speak openly to Virgilia and get something decided: their life, his fate, hers also. He had gone over and over what he would say to her. In some easy moment, under the influence of the summer night and his need at last to push things to the point; a moment when Fergus had wandered off, as he usually did, to pursue some interest of his own. If she was not too distracted by his absence, and, with their hair still wet from their bathe and the moon risen, the mood was right between them. Had prepared his mild answer to every question she might raise.

  Each time he went over the encounter in his head it took a different direction, had a different shape, but he drove it, always, to the same conclusion.

  He was filled with the optimism that came to him on the warmth of the summer night, from the clear light out there of the sky, and a light that was in him too, the physical assurance of youthful energy and of the way his life lay open before him even in the immediacy here of Paddy’s reaching like a climber for every breath, and his own panicky sense of what it finally meant, and would mean to him too at last, to surrender to disintegration. But not yet! Not for years yet!

  Quarter past. He would just have time to get there, but would have to run most of the way now, and would arrive red-faced and sweating. Never mind. He would be cool enough when it came to the time. Maybe the running would do him good. Take off some of his excitement. Already he leaned towards the exhilaration of it, felt its glow on his skin.

  Paddy’s eyes had been following his every movement. Now a look of terror came into them.

  ‘What is it, Paddy?’

  The old man, fearfully agitated, began to shake his head and tried to raise a hand. When Adair took it, it closed on his own with a grip as of death itself. He was astounded at the dying man’s strength.

  ‘What is it?’ he asked again.

  But he knew the answer already.

  ‘It’s all right,’ he said, ‘I won’t leave you.’ Is that it? Is that it, Paddy?

  The grip loosened, and he sat while the watch ticked away, louder than ever it seemed: past the quarter, on to the half. The hand, relaxed now, in his own. Past ten. On to eleven.

  They would not have waited more than an hour. They would be out in the woods, the cloth gleaming white in the still transparent dark, the moist air drenched with the smells of summer, wormwood, elder-flower, the overpowering, far-travelling sweetness of lime-blossom. They would bathe in the stream, calling to one another in the dark as they shared its coolness. They would dress again in the cover of a hedge, and emerge refreshed and with their hair dripping. He had a vision of Virgilia leaning over to wring the water from her hair, then laughing and throwing back her head. They would walk back slowly, hand in hand, to where the cloth gleamed like another pool they might plunge into.

  In the heady warmth, with moonlight playing in the leaves overhead and the scent of lime-flower to lead them, mightn’t their hands find one another – innocently at first, then with a quickening awareness as their palms grew moist, their blood beat faster? Fergus would know well enough where this was leading. He was not innocent. He had been more than once to the maids’ room down the corridor under the roof. That was natural enough, he was fifteen. And she? Hadn’t he seen the face of desire in her? He watched Fergus take her hand and place it on his breast, then raise it and set her soft palm to his lips. Then tilt his head forward, set his mouth against her neck. – I must go, he thought, I must, I must!

  He jerked away, but the dry hand tightened on his own, and it was too late, he saw. If all this had unfolded as his heated brain had imagined it, then it was already too late, and had always been. He groaned and sank into an agony of his own, but did not attempt to break Paddy’s grip.

  After a little, Clarke, one of the footmen, came with a candle, and he sent him to call Mama Aimée. ‘Has he had the last rites?’ he asked when she arrived.

  ‘Father Egan was here at eight,’ she told him. ‘I’m surprised you didn’t pass him on the stairs. I told them to call me if he was any worse.’ She sat on the far side of the bed and took Paddy’s hand. ‘Yes,’ she said when he turned towards her. ‘It’s me, my old darling. And Michael. We won’t leave you.’

  He died, after a fearful struggle, about four in the morning. There was nothing noble in it. A demented animal hurling itself again and again against the bars of a cagc. Mama Aimée had wept on his shoulder – Paddy had been part of her childhood as he had been part of his own. He too wept. For Paddy. Out of nervous exhaustion. For his lost chance . . .

  ‘Excuse me, sir.’

  It was Carney.

  ‘Are you in pain?’

  ‘Me? No. Why do you ask?’

  ‘You were sort of groanin’. I thou
ght, sir, you might be in pain.’

  ‘No. I must have dozed off.’

  ‘I was goin’ to ask you something, I hope you don’t mind.’ He rubbed his nose very vigorously with the back of his fist. ‘Do you think, sir,’ he said after a moment, ‘that there is such a thing as forgiveness?’

  Adair stared at the man, unable for a moment to focus his mind.

  ‘I mean – you know, for what we done.’

  He found his voice after a moment but it was thick with emotion. ‘I’m sure there is,’ he said. He was thinking still of Paddy. ‘If there isn’t, there is no hope. None. For any of us.’

  The man nodded, but in his scrupulous way was not convinced.

  ‘I don’t just mean, you know, our bits of pleasure and that – they can’t grudge us those, do you think, sir?’

  Pleasure! The word was so unexpected it sent a rush of heat to his heart and he felt a fierce throb of desire that came from nowhere; but wasn’t it always like that? – the urge, the yearning, so sudden and inappropriate, cutting in across a man’s every attempt to be rational or serious; out of some vision caught in a fugitive way in the street, and which only the blood recalls, of a bit of women’s clothing hung out on a line and seductively shifting; an episode from the body’s anarchic other-life, desires, lusts that a man has incessantly to beat down in a world where there is no place for such wayward stirrings, or only such crude ones as fill him afterwards with the shame of unrestraint and loss.

  ‘Oh,’ the man said, concerned that Adair might have taken him amiss, ‘I didn’t just mean – you know, women. Other pleasures. Like just bein’ idle like, with nothin’ to do but get drunk in the sun. But women too, I can’t deny that. Even if it is a sin as they say, it’s a man’s nature. An’ God knows, it wasn’t that many, and I can’t say even now that I’m sorry for it.’

  ‘Why should you?’ Adair said, almost brutally. ‘Why should you?’

  ‘If it’s a sin, sir, as they say.’

  Adair made a dismissive motion with his hand. It might have meant anything but Carney now was alert.

 
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