The conversations at cur.., p.16
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       The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.16

           David Malouf
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  The two figures who had come into being through all this passing back and forth of sheets of paper, however close they came to what was most real in them, existed on a level of language that could not, he thought, be translated into ordinary discourse, and would shrink back, to hover as ghostly onlookers, from a world whose familiar scenes and habits, whose many reminders of previous occasions, old awkwardnesses, and affections, judgements, errors, would inevitably call back their heavier, more ordinary selves, and especially in his case he thought – and in a way that could only disappoint her and rob him, when he saw it, of his new-found assurance – the hot ungainly youth who still haunted his flesh. He would, out of professional habit, swagger a little, even without the dash and glitter of his uniform, and she would look grave and ask herself: is he, after all, so conventional? He would stumble, become tongue-tied. What then of the letters? Did he get someone else to write them? This was all foolishness of course – he was always running away with himself – but there was something of truth in it, and he came, day by day, to dread the moment when he must face her.

  He had forgotten how generous she was, and how acutely aware, in her quick way, of contradictions, not least her own.

  Six months before, Eamon Fitzgibbon had been struck with a paralysis that had left him entirely without speech. He had a man to attend to his grosser needs, to wash and dress and feed him, but only through Virgilia now could he communicate with the world; it was she who sat with him in the long winter afternoons, to read aloud from his favourite authors, Plutarch and Montaigne, and deciphering with slow patience his attempts to speak.

  ‘Do you remember, Michael,’ she said lightly, ‘what a determined little fibber I used to be? You warned me then that the world would catch up with me.’

  It was his second visit. They had got away, but only for a few moments, and were walking together by the lake.

  ‘Don’t,’ he said.

  A mist lay over the scene, with as always a smell of the sea in it, so that you were aware, even in the molten stillness, of Atlantic breakers and the crying of gulls. Perhaps it was that, he thought, that had led them so often into dreams of distance: the smell of the ocean in their sheets; that side of their world that was always open and on the move, from which all their weather came, mist, slow drizzle, slashing rain-storms that tore the roof-tiles off and uprooted trees, also the days, like this, of dreamy calm.

  ‘Oh, it’s all right,’ she said. ‘I don’t mean I have quite given in to the dullest, most absolute truth. But events are events. No amount of wishful thinking will change them.’ She gave him one of her affectionate, half-mocking looks. ‘When you first came here – how old were you, five? – you were such a sober little body, such a prig. I couldn’t believe my luck. I loved seeing how shocked you looked at the whoppers I told. How grave and concerned you were. And how you blushed – for me, no doubt, but also because you knew you were going to let me get away with it. What a dilemma for such a moral little soul. You’d look away and pretend you hadn’t heard, but there’d be a little crease on your brow – just there – that you couldn’t hide. You were afraid, I think, that I would go to hell and that you were guilty, out of embarrassment, of having failed to save me.’

  He felt the edge of defiance in her. If there was much that she had, through circumstances, given up, there was more that she had not. There was a new hardiness about her, a briskness in all her movements, but especially in her walk, that might have less to do, he thought, with her need to get back to her father’s side than with an adherence to her dream of travel for which she was secretly in training, a determination not to yield to the enclosed life that for a time was forced upon her and which she had accepted, though it was not in her nature, out of a passionate stoicism that was. She had not relinquished even the least of her ambitions, or her belief, long held, that the only proper exercise of the spirit was in risk.

  He visited the Park as often as he could get away, and there was usually the chance of a few minutes together. They talked and were easy, though not as easy as when they wrote, but by some unstated agreement spoke almost never of Fergus, though he was always, Adair thought, the third who walked in company with them, or, lost in his own abstractions, dawdled, as he had so often done, at a distance behind.

  In fact these glances over his shoulder at a figure who was not there were the only glimpse he had of Fergus in his first seventy-two hours at home, and he wondered if Fergus was deliberately avoiding him. Then, one morning, on the fourth or fifth day of his leave, he woke to a strangeness in the room that he took at first to be the last glimmerings of a dream that when he presently set his mind to it would come flooding back in all its brilliant detail. But when he sat up on one elbow it was to discover Fergus, already dressed for the outdoors in greatcoat and riding breeches, seated in the low window opposite and regarding him with a look of soft amusement.

  ‘What is it?’ he asked. ‘What has happened?’

  ‘Nothing. I’ve come to take you out, that’s all.’

  ‘How long have you been there?’

  ‘Three minutes – five? You had such a happy look I didn’t like to wake you.’

  Adair pushed sideways, pushed down for a moment into the blankets. It was true, he did feel happy. Extravagantly so. Was it the dream he had been having, whose physical exaltation still filled him, and which he felt even more strongly when he yawned and stretched his limbs, or some quality that Fergus had brought into the room, some old affection and intimacy between them that he had the power to restore just by being there, and which, as he rolled out of bed and set his foot down, Adair felt like the return of the easiest and most joyful occasions of their boyhood?

  ‘Don’t mind me,’ Fergus said.

  Adair stood rubbing his skull with the flat of his hand, aware, now that he was out of the warm envelope of the bedclothes and his own body heat, how sharp the air was. The light on the ceiling and all round the figure Fergus made in the long window-frame was bluish.

  He clapped his arms to his chest and did a heavy-footed dance on the cold floor. ‘Ah,’ he said, realizing at last what it was, ‘it’s been snowing.’

  ‘All night. Get a move on, won’t you? We’ll miss the best of it if you don’t. It’s after nine.’

  Adair poured water into the bowl on the wash-stand while Fergus held the towel for him, splashed his face and shoulders, quickly pulled on his clothes, and they set off with just a glass of spirits at the stable door while they stood waiting for the horses to be fetched.

  The yard was frozen. Great drifts of snow hung from the eaves and occasionally sifted down or fell with a thump. Their breath fumed. Fergus, who was always at his most energetic in such weather, stamped snow from his boots, his cheeks glowed. ‘You haven’t had a decent outing all week,’ he told him. ‘You’ll enjoy it. You’ll see.’

  He did. It was like old times. They rode easily together, scarcely speaking but happily in tune, and went round the shanty pubs in out-of-the-way villages, tossing down an inch or two of harsh-tasting poteen that burned in their throat and nostrils but warmed them against the cold, then rode on; in every place they stepped into finding noisy companions who immediately called on Fergus to come and join the smoky huddle they made where they sat with their boots up on the hearth and their coats open to take the heat, and were eager to carry them home to dinner. Rough fellows, most of them, only momentarily intimidated, Adair found, by his self-consciousness, which he lost when they lost theirs in the guarantee that if Fergus knew him he must be a boyo.

  At midday they ate potato and sorrel soup with the family of a horse-trader, who spent most of the meal trying to talk Fergus into buying a dappled dark bay they had looked at in a barn at the end of a potato-field where dark haulms stuck up out of the snow and a fierce wind sent the new flakes scurrying.

  Somewhere along the way they were joined by a dirty, drunken boy of about fifteen. He had attached himself to Fergus in one of the most isolated of the shebeens they visited at th
e end of a lough, where a toothless old granny doled out burning liquor to a lot of tinkers and their women while a youth played jigs on a fiddle, though most of the company was too drunk to dance. When they left, the boy had run along barefoot beside them till Fergus took him up behind, and he was with them for a couple of hours, angel-faced, incoherent, occasionally trying to kiss Fergus’s neck or put his hand into his shirt. But in another place, further on, he passed out, and they left him with a group of tramps who knew him – Butty, he was called – and settled him to sleep it off by the hearth.

  Later they ate again in a hut on the outskirts of another village, in a room where twenty pigeons moaned and gurgled behind a willow enclosure against the wall. Other birds danced about in osier cages of every shape that hung from the ceiling, and threw strange shadows against the light of the cruisie lamps; including a blackbird that would burst without warning into exuberant song, and in another cage a jackdaw that every ten minutes or so interrupted the lively talk around the hearth with shouts of ‘Take care, Jack!’, at which one of the children would get up and push a bit of crust through the bars so that the daw said ‘Thankee, and good luck.’

  The whole family was involved in bird-trapping and bird-trading. One of the younger boys explained to Adair that they trapped every sort of bird except the swallow and the robin. ‘For every swallow, you know, sir, has three drops o’ the devil’s blood in it – no man I know’d ever touch one – and the robin is a blessed bird. If I find a robin in me crib, sir, I put a bit o’ printed paper in its mouth an’ I say, “Spiddogue, spiddogue, now swear on this book in your mouth to send next time a thrush or a blackbird into me crib.” Then I pull out his tail-feather for a token, to know ’im again, and that’s how it’s done, sir.’

  In each of these households Fergus was welcomed as one of the family and in this last, since it was after ten and the snow was falling again, they were urged to stay.

  ‘Should we?’ Fergus demanded.

  The children clamoured and yelled, ‘Yes Fergus, do, do.’

  ‘Would you like that, Michael?’ he asked. ‘To stay here and sleep in shadogue? They won’t mind, I often do it.’

  Adair was tempted. The house was warm and jolly, in spite of the strong smell of fish oil from the lamps, and he did not want to break the long day’s intimacy between them and the happiness that all day, since the moment he woke and found Fergus there in the window watching over the last moments of his sleep, had never left him. He had ridden, for all the bitter weather, wrapped in the intense warmth of it.

  (Now, after so long, he felt it again, and so powerfully that he could not believe it would not communicate itself in the darkness to Daniel Carney, and he waited to hear him, at any moment, speak out of his own recollection of the man he had known as Dolan, out of a sense of his immediate warmth and presence beside them. He would have then, at least to the satisfaction of his own mind, and as much as he would ever have, his proof. He heard Carney shift in the dark, disturbed out of half-sleep, but no word came from him.)

  They had slept on fresh rushes and bundles of woollen breadeen.

  ‘You’ll not feel the cold, you know,’ the woman of the house told them, ‘on a bed o’ rushes. Our Lord himself slept on one. So did the Fianna. It’ll get your strength up.’

  The cages of the song-birds were covered with shawls and old clouts, but all night he was half aware of the pigeons settling and unsettling, scraping their feet in the dark, and had woken once to scratch a bite, not knowing for a moment where he was and alarmed by the strange shapes in the air above him, which seemed alive, but was soothed by the breathing all round of other sleepers, and the snuffling close by of one of the children, and soon sank back into his own world of sleep. Only when he woke to the stooped shape of one of the women restocking the fire and the birds cawing and gargling, and lay still a moment settling himself back into his skin, did he recall that when he woke in the night Fergus had no longer been beside him, though he was there again now, with his greatcoat round his shoulders and his long legs drawn up. He wondered, as they sat sipping the warm, rather salty milk from the keeler, which of the women of the household he had crept away to. There was no telling from the closed, friendly faces.

  But their outing was not repeated, and was, he guessed, a thing Fergus had arranged specially to make up for the fact that they were otherwise to see so little of one another.

  He spent some time each day listening to Mama Aimée, whose complaints now had become ritualized into a formula that was endlessly repeatable, so that his chief preoccupation as they sat drinking chocolate in her little sitting-room, or visiting, as she still loved to do, her horses, was to avoid the cues that set her off, and when she did begin, to lead her as subtly as possible to another subject.

  She could sometimes be tempted, these days, to speak of her youth, and for the first time, in her reminiscences of midnight feasts at Miss Bonnifer’s Academy in Dublin, and the pranks some of the young ladies got up to on their excursions to the sea at Howth, he caught a glimpse of a lively figure at her side who was his mother, but too late for him to form, as he might have done twenty years before, any clear image from it.

  The girl Mama Aimée evoked was wayward enough, and already scandalously in communion with the young man who would become his father, a local tenor much frequented by Miss Bonnifer’s young ladies, who were all in love with him; he had just begun to make a reputation for himself in concert halls and at the theatre.

  But the stories Mama Aimée had to tell were the merest sketches. She had reduced them over the years to conventional tales of girlish high spirits and innocent indiscretions, with no details to catch the imagination or the heart. However bright a picture they might make in her own memory, the two friends she spoke of, for all their closeness and the many little confidences and promises for the future they exchanged, remained for him too far-off, too shadowy, even with the evidence of Mama Aimée before him, to become flesh and blood. He wondered why she had waited so long to tell what might, twenty years before, have meant so much to him, and he felt a terrible pity for the child he had been and whose heart he could still feel, in a quite disconcerting way, beating painfully in his breast, who had been so conscious of having come here with nothing of his own, no memories, no ties, only the ones he must make in this new life he had been given. He felt again a little of that child’s panicky bewilderment and was astonished at his courage, at the mixture of opportunism and stubborn will that had allowed him to survive, and felt a kind of anger, even now, at the anxiety he had suffered, which he thought had shaped more of his present nature than he dared acknowledge.

  And after all that, it was he and Mama Aimée who sat together here; he listening more patiently than any son, more patiently, certainly, than Fergus, to the long rigmarole of a life she saw only in terms of its losses; she playing more intimately than ever now the part of the mother he had never known. Is that why she had made so little effort in the old days to make his lost mother real to him? To make certain that his ties of affection would be only to her? To make certain that he would be here, twenty years later, when she would most have need of him, to sit through a long winter’s morning while she evoked the light-headed, careless creature who had given him birth, and her friend, the big older girl whose plainness and good sense his mother might have taken as a balance to her own dangerous lightness, and who would provide, when the time came, the bread and butter that would save her orphaned child from destitution.

  Long views, long views . . .

  But there was another thought that occurred to him. It was this: that he had somehow, innocently, unwittingly, stolen Fergus’s birthright. That part of Mama Aimée’s failure to accept Fergus was because she had already given her heart to him, and that when he gave his, and so completely, to the other child, she had, also innocently, unwittingly, turned against the boy. Unreasonable, unnatural? It might seem so, but he had long since given up the belief that the forces that move us have anything to do either wit
h nature or reason, or that the heart moves in anything but the most crooked way.

  But this image of himself as cuckoo, which was a new one and which he thought threw his whole relationship with Fergus into a new light, was disturbing to him. If Fergus had forgiven Mama Aimée, surely he must. But could he forgive himself? Had he really, for all his devotion to the boy, innocently, unwittingly – and why did he insist on these terms, what did they mean? – replaced Fergus in his mother’s heart?

  Each morning, when he had done his duty to Mama Aimée, he rode across to the Park.

  His way to Virgilia would be barred on most occasions by Marnie O’Riordan, whom Virgilia, at Fergus’s urging, had taken on as her maid. Very prim, and with a tart, disapproving manner that went oddly with her youth, she appeared to regard all visitors to the Park, however familiar, as intruders.

  Adair was puzzled by her hostility towards him and believed at first that it must be out of loyalty to Fergus; that she regarded him as a rival to Fergus in Virgilia’s affections and meant, with a bluntness that had its comic side it was so obvious, to keep him off. But he saw after a time that she was acting on her own behalf. The keynote of her nature was a fierce possessiveness. Having transferred to Virgilia the proprietorial affection she had shown, on the day of their visit, for Fergus, she resented the few minutes each day that he and Virgilia found to walk by the lake; even more, that he was admitted as an equal to the hours she spent with her father in the dim library, a place Marnie appeared to regard as the one area in the house that was entirely closed to her, not by actual prohibition but, like some dark cave in a fairy-tale, by the spirits that hovered around its entrance and governed the obscure hocus-pocus through which Virgilia and her father managed their silent conversation.

  ‘What a terrier she is.’ He laughed. ‘I feel I ought to turn up with a bag of currant buns to throw at her. If she had her way I’d never see you at all.’

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