The conversations at cur.., p.15
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       The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.15
 

           David Malouf
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  He did come to them with his tales. He was too open in his nature, they were too close, all three, for him to keep them entirely to himself. But she felt always that she had failed to get to the bottom of things; that even in the telling of them, even as he lay just as she had dreamed, with his head in her lap while she stroked his hair, there was something he held back, some intimate involvement of himself that he deliberately kept hidden, or which she could not grasp because he could not express it.

  But nothing, Adair saw, was held back. Did she, for all her longing to dive into his soul, know so little of him? His withdrawals to the margin of himself were a form of unreflective dreaming, not the expression of a nature that was close or politic. He threw himself into things, boldly, impetuously, and did not ask what it was in himself that his recklessness reflected, what shadows, larger than action itself, might be at work to drive him on. And it was these and these only that Virgilia wanted to share with him. But how can he reveal them to her? Adair thought. He does not even know they are there.

  When he was gone there was, once again, just the two of them, to go over and over what he had told, drawn closer by his absence.

  They knew him better, each in their different way, than he knew himself. They were, as he showed them often enough, two of a kind, as like one another as he was different.

  ‘I should break with all this,’ Adair told himself, ‘and I will, I will! But not yet.’

  There was a quality of abjection in it that he knew was unmanly and of which he ought to be ashamed. But the sweetness of his suffering was a drug. He could afford, he thought, to give himself up to it because it had a fixed and foreseeable end. When he was nineteen he would leave for the army. The false security of this undermined his will and kept him dangling. That, and the confusion of his feelings.

  He was, in his own way, as much under Fergus’s spell as she was; but if he was to have her it could only be at Fergus’s expense. And always there was the hopeful, hopeless possibility that she would see at last that her passion for Fergus could have no outcome, and that it was he, who had always loved her and stayed patiently close, practising always a difficult loyalty to both, who was her natural partner.

  One day in early autumn, not long before he left at last to go on service, they were returning, all three, from an afternoon’s hunting in the woods beyond the Park when Fergus led them, on a dry path along the edge of the bog, towards a row of mean little shacks in a spinney, one-roomed, earth-floored hovels where turf-cutters and their families lived, in an area overgrown with weeds and brambles, with occasionally, in a cleared space, a few late beans on a trellis and a gooseberry bush.

  Dirty-faced children, the smallest in nothing but a shirt, played in the mud-puddles beside the path. They stopped and stood staring as Fergus on his giant bay, Virgilia on a little fine-boned chestnut mare that pranced, and he himself, riding a short distance behind on his black, came clattering down the road under the leaves, stirring the dust and making an impromptu display.

  Big clouds like overladen haywagons were stalled overhead, their edges bruised purplish-grey, threatening a shower. There was a smell of rain on the air, and in the heaviness of the elders, a breathing towards it. The first of the fallen leaves, disturbed by the horses’ hooves, sent up a pungent odour of early mould.

  They turned off into the spinney. Fergus sprang down and lifted the couple of hares he had got from where they hung big-eyed at his saddle-pack.

  ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘I’ve a call to make.’

  ‘Here?’

  Virgilia, doubtful, her lively little horse cutting sideways and kicking up dust, eyed the row of huts and the children who hung along the willow fence.

  ‘It’s all right,’ he told her, ‘it’s quite safe.’

  She lifted her chin. ‘It isn’t that,’ she said. ‘Who’s to look after the horses?’

  Fergus made a sign to a couple of big freckled boys of nine or ten who were among the starers.

  ‘Here,’ he shouted, ‘take the lady’s horse.’

  He dipped into his pocket for a coin and the older boy turned it in a grubby palm. ‘I’ll give you another when we get back.’ His own horse, which was quiet, he passed to the second boy. When Adair came up a moment later, the second boy ran forward and held it while he swung down.

  Fergus, the two hares slung over his wrist, led the way past the first of the roped-thatch huts.

  On the flattened weeds in front of it a pasty-faced woman with bristling hair was weaving a basket. Bundles of osier stood against the wall behind her. There was a crib at her feet and two small children, thin and barefooted, clung to her knees.

  ‘What’s that you’ve got?’ she called. ‘Is it for the O’Riordans?’

  He held up the hares.

  ‘Look, Brendan,’ she said, and the older of the two children put his head out from behind her skirt, ‘look a’ the fiadh.’

  ‘Good luck to ye,’ she called after them as they made their way on the narrowing path that led into the spinney.

  ‘Fergus,’ Virgilia said, ‘where are we going?’ She was impatient rather than anxious. He was always playing this game of surprises and secrets.

  ‘You’ll see.’

  A little barefooted girl appeared before them, who stared a moment, then fled, and they heard her calling ahead.

  ‘It’s Fergus, Fergus is come. Mam, Mam, Fergus is here.’

  She ran back and hung on to his belt.

  ‘Are them for uz?’ she asked, crinkling her nose at the hares. She was thin, milk-skinned, with long uncombed black hair.

  The hut when they came to it stood behind the remains of an osier fence that had been pushed sideways at one point, perhaps by a runaway pig, and the yard was bare and stalky, with a few dried-out canes still upright in the ground, bearing nothing, and a pile of charred stones among the weeds where a fire had been lit. Two younger children ran out and seemed ready to dance and shout but sobered when they saw Fergus was not alone. They stood, the little girl with a dirty thumb in her mouth and her eyes narrowed, the boy, bolder, looking to Fergus for explanation.

  ‘Hello there,’ Fergus said, ‘Annie, Declan.’

  The children let them pass, Fergus leading, into the dim, strong-smelling interior, and then hung at the door, watching as Fergus introduced them to a shapeless woman with thin hair and no teeth who might have been any age from thirty-five to sixty and a fierce-looking girl of maybe fourteen, Mrs O’Riordan and her daughter Marnie. In a moment the other children had crowded in to have their names formally given.

  ‘Sit down, won’t ye, miss,’ Mrs O’Riordan said, showing Virgilia a place set in the hearth. What the children called creepies, little low three-legged stools, were produced for Fergus and Adair. Fergus, his long legs almost at his chin, sat beaming.

  It was a mean, low-ceilinged place with a daub floor. A single opening that could be covered with a dried sheepskin, which hung from a nail beside it, provided the only window. Wickerwork showed through breaks in the plaster above the hearth, and at the gable wall at the other end a milch-cow was tethered, with an open drain under its tail that ran to a slurry-pit outside. The smoky fire caught in their throats, made their eyes smart.

  Mrs O’Riordan explained that the house, by some misfortune, had been built on a fairy path, which accounted for their bad luck but also for the door, which had to be kept open in even the severest weather and the little pitcher of water beside it.

  The girl who had met them on the path, and who it appeared was the family look-out, came in now with two older boys of twelve and fifteen, who had been cutting turf in the bog. They were grimed and sweaty, their legs stained to the knee with bog-water. They set their slanes against the wall, and the older of the two, very manly and serious, shook hands with Fergus and then with Adair. The other, who seemed simple-minded, stood gawking. They were all very constrained, but once the hares had been laid in the shallow basket that served as a table, and had been poked at and squirmed over and adm
ired, things went easier. Fergus was already at ease, but soon the children were too, plying him with questions, tugging at his shirt when they wanted to speak, swarming over him like puppies while he laughed and tumbled them off. At last he caught the smallest of them back, settled her on his lap, and began to recreate for them the noise and excitement of the hunt. How the dogs performed, how they had got one hare, then the other.

  ‘Why didn’ ye bring the dogs?’ the simple boy asked (instead of us, Adair thought, meeting Virgilia’s amused eye as she too saw it) and Fergus explained that there were too many of them and that they had a handler to take care of them.

  ‘How many is there?’ the boy wanted to know. ‘What are they called?’

  ‘Donagh, shh now,’ Marnie told him. ‘You mustn’ keep on askin’.’ But Fergus told him. Five, and each of the names.

  ‘Lockie is a good ’un,’ the boy said, out of a place in himself that was not quite in the room. Something in the name appealed to him and he laughed, and they all laughed except Marnie, who remained very stern and disapproving and did not for a moment drop her fierceness. She was, Adair saw, ashamed before them, but most of all before Virgilia. Fergus, who had also seen it, tried to draw her out.

  ‘Marnie,’ he told them, ‘can read a little. I taught her – eh Marnie? And she teaches the others. You can read a little, can’t you, Declan?’ This to a boy of six or seven who was clinging to his knee. But Marnie was not pleased by this attempt to draw attention to her. All she did was glare. A couple of Burton books in their dirty white covers were brought out and Declan read them a few hair-raising paragraphs from The Irish Rebels and Rapparees.

  ‘He’s very good to uz,’ Mrs O’Riordan told Virgilia. ‘I don’t know what we’d have done otherwise.’

  Fergus shook his head. But the affection they all had for him, and the pleasure he took in it, was too plain to be hidden. ‘O’Riordan,’ he told them quietly, ‘was transported.’

  ‘Seven years,’ the woman announced. ‘Do you know, sir,’ she asked Adair, ‘where New South Wales is?’

  It was the first he had heard of it. Now, sitting in the dead of night in the very heart of it, he cast his mind back to that afternoon and the woman’s question. Somewhere out here, Fergus, all six feet six of him, if it was him, lay a bare three feet under the surface, at a spot unnamed and strange, having run to the ends of the earth not to become what blood at least had intended, the last in that sequence of green mounds at the end of the Walk. How could they have known then, either of them, any of them – for there was also Virgilia – the part it would play in their lives?

  New South Wales. When the woman dropped the name into the dead air of the hut, and the children’s faces hardened around it – they had heard it often enough – he had felt no premonitory stirring in him. It conjured up no point on the globe, no fact or association.

  ‘No,’ he told her, ‘I do not.’

  ‘Ah,’ she said, ‘I thought you would have. He has, Fergus has. It’s many a poor man has gone there.’

  ‘Here,’ Fergus said to break the mood that had come over them, and easing the child on to one knee, he rooted about in his pocket. ‘I’ve brought you something.’ He spilled half a dozen walnuts, one for each child, out of his pocket, and the girl who had met them on the path, and regarded herself as a favourite, gathered them up and handed them round. The children immediately sat and began cracking them with their teeth.

  ‘These are for you,’ he said, producing two little mandarin oranges, one for Mrs O’Riordan, the other for Marnie, who could not resist a half-secret smile as she pushed hers into the pocket of her apron.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ Mrs O’Riordan told them, ‘I’ve no tea nor nothin’ I can offer you.’

  She set her orange in the rishawn beside the two hares, where no doubt she would divide it out later among the children.

  Riding away, Fergus, in an unusually expansive mood, told them of O’Riordan’s crime – he had been accused of belonging to a band of sheep-stealers – and of the woman’s courage, and the affection and good nature of the children, and how the two older boys, Donagh and Sean, worked fourteen hours a day cutting turf to keep a roof over their heads and to feed them.

  The rain, a brief shower, had come and gone while they were in the hut. Rich smells of dust and soaked grass rose up to meet them, mixed with the smell of wet leather and horse. The air, refreshed and cleared of heat, was so sparklingly clear that the whole countryside, as they rode out of the spinney, all drenched and dripping sunlight from every leaf, was laid out before them.

  Far off, beyond the peat bog and the woods where Fergus had taken his hares, was the white façade of the Park, picked out with brilliant clarity under a sky that was cloudless now, with just the faint hint in its blue of a rainbow.

  Virgilia was silent; impressed, as Adair himself was, by the O’Riordans, but even more by an aspect of Fergus they had not seen till now and could scarcely have imagined. He had been noisy enough with the children, boisterous even, but there was as well a gravity in his dealing with even the youngest of them, as of an older brother or substitute father, that was quite new, as if a side of him that till now he had had no use for had emerged in response to the family’s needs, each one of them, but even more to the affection they showed him, which he took in an easy way as the most natural thing in the world.

  Their affection, Adair thought, and especially Virgilia’s, he took always as if it made demands on him that it was not in his nature to meet. Not because he was not fond of them but because their needs were so exclusive and he was unwilling to be contained. It was this, Adair thought, rather than the looks the older girl, Marnie, had given her, the rivalry, absurd as it might be, for possession, that disturbed Virgilia. Perhaps she had begun to see what he felt he had always known: that it would not be another woman who would occupy his heart and keep his spirit always beyond her reach.

  It was clear, or ought to have been, from the exalted mood he was in: which communicated itself to every part of him and from his spirit to theirs, and seemed to glow out of every aspect of the landscape – from the pools in the distance that flashed out where the last of the shower had not yet been sucked into the earth, from the tips of the leaves overhead – and would live in Adair’s memory of their ride home as an atmosphere they moved in that Fergus created by his presence at their side, and which he and Virgilia, in their different ways, breathed and fed on but could no more hold than the air itself, or the light that played with such high drama over the Park meadows, making new, unfamiliar, unforgettable, the familiar scene.

  He was away for four years on that first tour: serving in small frontier towns in Galicia and the Krajina; writing home regularly, the dutiful son, to Mama Aimée, who did not always reply, and sending long, increasingly expansive and expressive letters to Virgilia in which he began, under the influence of her desire to analyse and question even the smallest nuances of feeling, to examine his own.

  In the beginning it was no more than an exercise in pleasing her, in complying, which had become a habit in him, with her exigent demands; but self-analysis, a conscientious probing in himself of hidden motives and desires, of all the devious means by which the heart, but also the mind, indulges and deceives, became a kind of passion in him; no longer simply a way of catching and holding her attention by playing, with a certain degree of masculine cynicism, the part that would most interest her, but of uncovering in himself, and more now for his own sake than for hers, this other and deeper self that sprang into existence when his pen traced the magic words ‘My Dear Virgilia’ and his soul added, silently, ‘My Dearest’.

  Isolated as he was among strangers, and in a profession whose daily routine denied him, with its promiscuity and clatter, the retreat into quietness which he now discovered was one of the cravings of his nature, he found in writing to her an escape into the deepest privacy of all, the one a man shares with the blank page, with candle, ink and pen in the deep hours of night, when others, a whole b
arracks full of men, in their regulation cots and hammocks, lie released from the discipline that makes them equal and uniform into the free world of sleep, into an area, beyond surveillance, where, their clothes laid aside, their skin soaked with moonlight, they can indulge without fear of scrutiny in the most outrageous insubordination, the simplest or most grotesque desires.

  What he released himself into was a kind of dreaming-on-the-page; which, insofar as speaking on paper is a speaking across distance to one whose attention can be taken for granted, whose eye reading the not-yet written page one assumes already to be focused and engaged, is a sharing, a deep communion of mouth to ear and soul to soul, such as he could never have contemplated when she was near, and which drew out of him, awkwardly at the beginning, then with increasing boldness, a more eloquent, more perceptive, more passionate self – anatomist, philosophe, lover.

  He had embarked on a new means of wooing her, and as his changed and changing self crept forth and made itself visible, apprehensible, through the alchemy of language itself, in forms whose boldness, whose grandeur of concept and fantasy surprised even himself, little turns of expression that revealed new views to him of what he thought and felt, he grew full of an elated confidence, and when she responded it was to this new self he had uncovered to her, phrase matching phrase in the same passionate intimacy, and he was ever more powerfully drawn on.

  He had suspected her at first of writing only so that she could speak, even in passing, of Fergus; and it was true, there was always some mention of him. And why not? It was news he was always eager to hear. But more and more freely, more openly now, she spoke, in response to the frankness of his own unveilings, of herself.

  After four years and so much that had now been stated between them, it worried him, when he decided to go home on leave, how they would meet again as their former selves.

 
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