The conversations at cur.., p.13
The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.13David Malouf
‘You don’t believe in it? In sin?’
‘I don’t know,’ Adair said. ‘I can’t answer all these questions you keep putting to me. How could I? I’m not a priest.’
Carney drew back, and he was immediately sorry for his outburst. ‘No,’ he said very firmly, ‘to be truthful I do not. I do not believe in it. Not at all.’
Carney looked surprised at his vehemence, and the fact was, he was surprised himself. Something in the turn the conversation had taken disturbed him. He felt a kind of anger at the world of denial he had glimpsed in the misery of the man’s poor confession. Such common delights – why the denial? Why should ordinary fellows crawling about under the sun begrudge themselves these innocent comforts in a world that was so full of injustice and every sort of misery? Why was he – for it was himself he was thinking of – so ashamed of these disorderly surges of a desire that was, after all, what kept the world itself in existence, or all the part of it, at least, that was human; kept humanity, in all its irrepressible millions, breathing and pushing for place, for a little light and air, a little dignity too, before it was crushed back into the dust; kept it hanging on, like this fellow here, to a few more hours of warmth in the flesh. A mere momentary excitation of the nerves, a brilliant bewilderment that could mean much or little – wasn’t that a small consolation for so much striving to keep the body clothed and fed, for so much close-mouthed endurance and back-breaking toil and stumbling blindly from one moment to the next?
‘A hundred years from now men will live very different lives from anything we know, Michael.’ That is what Eamon Fitzgibbon had told him. ‘The world will be transformed. We will be transformed. The process has already begun – I saw it myself, the beginning – August the fourth, 1789. Your children and grandchildren, in 1910, 1915, will be in the glorious midst of it. Our lives, child, yours and mine, are what must go into the making of it, as the lives of all the generations before us, sunk deep in mud and filth but painfully climbing out of it, have made all this, all these books on the shelves here, and what is in them, a good fireplace and a fire that draws, those andirons, these solid walls that keep the weather out and make a place for pictures to hang, that fine shirt you are wearing, those stout boots, the oil that goes into this lamp so that we can read our Plutarch and all that the men of these latter days have given us, the order and beauty of their minds, as an example of the order we must create in our own, then in the world around us . . .’
He was just fourteen. He sat listening in the dim light of the Library, seated in a body that was all turmoil, all disorder, blind lust, so that for all the time Eamon Fitzgibbon was urging him to a vision of truth and justice in a time to come, his own backward nature, which knew and cared nothing for reason, drew him back to the dirty footsoles of the servant girl he had seen on the stairs on the way up as she knelt at her scrubbing: the light of her thighs, where she had hoicked up her skirt and it rode higher each time she lunged forward and swung her arm in a half-circle leaving a swathe of suds; her raised rump, and when he turned back, the way her eyes had lifted to his, moist with the headcold that made her sniff and draw the back of her hand across her nose.
She was his own age. He had seen her before but did not know her name. That she had seen so clearly what was in his mind made her even more desirable to him. Her dirty feet. The moist sound of the mucus in her nose. His cock had puffed and thickened, grown so tight with blood that as he went on up he had had, furtively, to push it into a less visible position in his breeches.
The image had stayed with him, and not only through the following lesson. It had continued to feed his senses in solitary moments when he had only to reach for it and the pleasure he rose to was once again that of the fourteen-year-old who had been stopped dead, his body aflame, by the choking closeness of it. And who knows? Perhaps it was because the image was forever associated with them, that for all his distraction, Eamon Fitzgibbon’s words had struck so deeply into his soul.
‘We have come only a little way, child, there is still all about us so much ignorance – look at us here in Ireland! – so much misery and hunger. In your lifetime, Michael, all this will change, and more swiftly than any man could have believed when I was your age. Ignorance will vanish, disease, crime, hunger. Men will no longer be at one another’s throats. I believe all this. I know it is true. I envy you the world you will see. God may exist – I do not deny that, though as you know I am no great friend of the Church – and be responsible for all this. But in that case he is responsible for the evil as well as the good and has great need of us. It is our business to make good his mistakes, to achieve, as far as we are able, that just world of perfect reason and order that He, for whatever reason, has failed to provide for us. Perhaps because the greater glory is to stand by and let His creatures do it through the gifts He has given us.’
He had struggled. He had sat for long hours beside the candle with the pages burning before him, trying to get into his head and make live there a belief in the forces of order and justice that would transform their lives, and had felt, with a deepening sadness, that the venture must be fruitless, because it had already and so clearly failed in him: and where else could it begin but with particular cases, in individual bodies and souls?
He remained lumpishly untransformed. More insistent than his love of justice, or his will to achieve it, was the need to relieve himself savagely of the vision of that girl’s thighs, whose light was so much more dazzling than the light off any page, and the darkness between them so close to a form of darkness in himself that he clung to and would not relinquish. For there were moments when he loved his body. For all its betrayals, for all its secret dedication to disorder, he truly loved it. It was his way into the world. All his affection for things, all that was most tender in him, came through it. Not through what he knew, or even what he believed and had failed to grasp or love enough, but, bewildering as it was, through what this lump of flesh told him.
‘Are there no crimes, then?’
‘Crimes. Half of us in this country are here for the crimes we done.’
‘There are crimes, yes. Of course there are. There’s the law. Men make that and then punish those who break it.’
Adair, in the cool precision of this, felt the wave of sensuality that swept over him, and which must, he thought, have been the last flushings of his unremembered dream, recede, drain away, leaving him calm but exhausted.
‘I don’t know,’ Carney muttered. ‘Half the time, when I broke it, I didn’ even know what it was. How could I? They never even learned me what it was. I had to live. I had to break it. I wonder I didn’ do worse than I did, considerin’. I was an animal half the time, no better, no worse. But how could I of been otherwise? There’s such a thing in the world as hunger. But was we any better when we was brought here, an’ hung up in the triangles and whipped? Not a bit of it. Worse if anything, worse I’d say. The fact is, sir’ – he was becoming more and more agitated – ‘I killed a feller, I killed a man. That’s what I wanted to tell you.’
With the light full in his face so that all his bruises showed, one eye half-closed in the puffy, iridescent flesh, he wore a pitiful expression. They had arrived all in a rush at something ultimate. The mere statement seemed to have drawn all the air out of the man’s lungs. He seemed on the point of choking. He had let something loose between them, some phantom or fury, that terrified him.
‘When you were out there?’ Adair found himself asking. A jerk of his head indicated the invisible ranges.
‘No, not then. I never killed no one then. They say I did but it’s a lie, there’s a lot that’s not true in what they say. I did not.’
‘But some of the others did. Dolan did.’
The question side-tracked him completely. He looked puzzled. ‘Ah,’ he moaned at last, ‘what’s the point of goin’ over all that? He paid for it, if ’e did, poor darlin’.’
The anguish of this, the old Irish endearment, shamed Adai
‘I won’t say no more o’ that,’ Carney muttered.
He let his head fall between his knees and a great sob came out of him that made the powerful shoulders heave. He dashed the back of his hand across his eyes. ‘No,’ he said, recovering his voice, ‘this was before all that.
‘Do you know a place called Camden, sir? I was sent there with a road-gang. We was puttin’ a road through. There was this feller, Shafto they called ’im. From Newcastle, what they call a Geordie. Skinny little runt, as black as any man I ever see. They say ’e was a miner. He looked like the coal-dust had got right into ’im, he was that black. Well, he took a dislike to me. It’ll happen sometimes, a feller’ll take a dislike. No reason. Or not one you’d ever get to the bottom of. It wasn’t for any harm I ever done ’im. I’d barely looked at him. Barely knew ’e was there. But it made ’im mad, like, just bein’ in the sight of me. I knew it an’ kept out of ’is way. You get to reckernize such things in a man, livin’ the life I did. If you don’t you’re in trouble. Anyway, I seen it an’ kept out of ’is way. On’y I couldn’t always. We was in the same gang. An’ the fact is, it didn’ suit ’im. ’E’d seek me out. The sight of me maddened ’im but that was just what he wanted. ’E couldn’ let me be.
‘I’d be sittin’ over me bit o’ food, where we were all eatin’ together in a ditch, an’ I’d look up an’ there ’e’d be. He’d of moved just so’s ’e could get a better look at me. He’d be starin’ like, with the food in his mouth half-eaten. It meant more to ’im, that – what ’e had against me – than gettin’ the food into his mouth. Well, I knew sooner or later ’e’d have a go at me. Bound to, I thought. Well, that’s all right, I thought, you do it, I’ll be ready for ye. There was no point, you see, in arguin’. I knew that. It was just the way ’e was. The way I was too, what could I do about it? I wasn’t livin’ my life to please him.
‘Well, there was another feller in the gang. A kid, really. Girlish sort o’ lad, a bit light in the head if you know what I mean, but no harm in ’im. This other feller, this Shafto, took to tauntin’ ’im. Not bullying like – more taunting, which can be worse sometimes. It made the rest of us uncomfortable. What ’e was suggestin’, like. These things do go on, you know, sir – men are animals, there are fellers that do such things, it’s best not to speak of ’em. I never had nothin’ to do with that sort o’ thing meself, nor the lad neither – or if ’e did, I never knew it. It was just that ’e was delicate like, soft. It made some men kinder to ’im, others the opposite. It’s strange that, how one man’ll go one way, another just the opposite. Anyway, it upset me, his tauntin’ the lad like that, an’ when he saw it he was pleased. Sort of – satisfied. I saw the little smile on ’is face. He’d found a way of gettin’ at me. So I thought, it’ll do me no good to say anything, it’ll on’y make matters worse. So from then on there was two of ’em I had to keep out of the way of.’
He paused, wet his lower lip, frowning. Chewed a moment at the hangnail of his thumb.
‘You know, sir, there’s some things seem like fate. Whatever step you take, in any direction, there it is right in front of you, it can’t be avoided. He didn’ give up, that feller. He just went on and on, and one day I just said, “Leave it alone,” I said, “why don’t you?” Not loud.
‘“What was that?” he says back, gleeful like but tryin’ to keep it hid. He was that happy. It had come at last.
‘“We all know,” he says, in a voice he was tryin’ like to keep steady, he was that worked up, “we all know why you’re speakin’ up for the cunt.” Then he said somethin’ I wouldn’t want to repeat.
‘I didn’t think. I just threw meself right at ’im. He was smaller than me. He must of known if we fought I could beat the daylight out of ’im. I meant to kill him, I can admit that. I wanted to stamp ’im right into the ground. Like you would a spider. I hit him, he went down. I didn’t need to ’ave hit ’im again. I’ve got a temper, like. It comes on quick but it goes off quick as well, an’ it ’ad gone off, so I didn’t need to ’ave hit him again. But I did, an’ I put the whole weight of me body into it. I wanted to knock ’im out of the light.’ He sat shaking his head. ‘I said I meant to kill ’im and I did mean it, then I didn’t. An’ it was when I didn’t, an’ didn’ need to, that I went in an’ finished ’im off. Deliberate. Some part of me just hit out and did it, an’ I stood back with the sweat flyin’ off me, and to tell God’s truth, sir, I never felt better in all me life.’
He paused, sat back a little. There was an air of cold defiance in him.
‘So,’ he said. ‘What do ye make a’ that?’
‘What did the magistrate make of it?’
Carney gave a rough laugh. ‘Never made nothin’ of it, didn’ get the chance to. That night I used a file an’ got away. Spent four days in the bush round there – they hunted me all over, dogs an’ all – then got away and over the range.’
‘And met up with Dolan.’
‘That’s right. After a bit I did, but I was on me own at first. Three weeks it was. I was half starved and more or less out o’ me wits when they come acrost me.’
‘And what did Dolan make of it?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Your story. Didn’t you tell it to him?’
The look Carney gave him suggested there was something he had not understood.
‘No sir, I never told no one till now.’
‘Because you were ashamed?’
‘No, sir,’ he said very simply, but with a weary impatience as if, once again, Adair had failed to understand. ‘Because I wasn’t.’
There was a long pause.
‘So then,’ he repeated. ‘What do you make of it?’
He wants me to tell him he was right, Adair thought. No, not that. He wants absolution.
‘I told you before,’ he said. ‘I’m not a priest.’
‘I know that, sir. I’m askin’ you as man to man. You’ve been very patient with me, sir, listenin’ an’ that. I’ve never had much of a chance till now – you know, to talk things over. I’d like to know your opinion.’
‘Of what you did?’
‘Yes, sir. Of me, sir.’
Adair drew a deep breath. When he spoke it was for himself as much as for the other.
‘If I were God,’ he began – It is an illusion, he thought, this faith we have in reason, this conviction that we can keep disorder at bay by making rules and twisting our nature out of the way it would lead us; into the most horrible crimes perhaps, but they would be our crimes, the ones our nature demands. Instead of which, we live in the shadow of the crime not committed, though we still bear the guilt of it. In obedience to the rules. And our cowardice festers in us, turns our whole nature awry in a parody of what it means to be guiltless. There is no answer to this, but everything we think of as human and civilized depends upon it. ‘If I were God,’ he said again, ‘I would choose to forgive because I could not find it in my heart to do otherwise.’
Carney looked up at him. His expression was one of pathetic gratitude.
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘For what? I am not God.’
‘I know that, sir.’ He considered a moment. ‘Do you think, sir, that that is how it will be? You know, afterwards.’
Adair shook his head. ‘I can’t answer that, Carney. You ask me questions I can’t answer. You wanted me to answer as a man. Well, that’s it, that’s my answer.’
Time enough, he thought, for the other, later on.
Which is what Daniel Carney too might have been thinking.
* * *
* * *
ONE OF THE things that most perplexed him, and the more as he grew older and saw the signs of it in so many places, felt in himself the ever-present slide towards it, was what it might be in the world that made disintegration an essential element of existence
When, he wondered, looking back, did he first feel the presence of it as a force in the lives they lived at Ellersley? When he was twelve? When he was fifteen? The insecurity of his place there had always, it seemed to him, made its customs and habits, its seasonal routines and fixtures, almost painfully precious to him. He clung to them with a childish anxiety, determined to keep up each one of them, even when others, like Mama Aimée, seemed happy to let them go. It was an aspect perhaps of what they called old-fashioned in him, this nostalgia for abidingness, this solemn preoccupation, even when he was himself a green little thing, growing and hungering for life, with the preservation of all that was settled, with what you could hope to find tomorrow where you had left it yesterday.
In fact no place he could have chosen was better designed than Ellersley to frustrate and deny him. Each year the old order there, such as it was, or such as he had imagined it to be, was more deeply shaken. Some of this, he knew, was general, the slow accumulation of grime and verdigris and rust, the building up of more rubbish, more of the detritus of living, than could be packed into boxes and pushed out of sight, or hauled across the yard and sent up in a column of smuts. But the rest was personal. It had to do with the nervous insecurities of Mama Aimée, which each year made her more wild and unpredictable, and the indolence and empty self-importance of the man who called himself the master and who occasionally, and disastrously, appeared in that role, but whose only contribution to the household was the mess he made and his complaints afterwards, which were loud and circumlocutory, against Mama Aimée’s timidity in dealing with Paddy and that ignorant fellow’s connivance with the servants in every sort of slatternliness and Irish indiscipline.
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