The conversations at cur.., p.4
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       The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.4

           David Malouf
 
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  ‘Go on,’ Adair found himself saying, and broke the spell.

  ‘How do you mean, sir?’

  Go on seeing him, he had meant, and he will be here. He will step right in out of the moonlight and we will both see him. Could there be two such? He did not believe it. Fergus. It must be. To have got so close and missed him, and for this fellow Carney to be the only source of proof!

  But the spell was broken.

  ‘I think, if you don’t mind, sir,’ the man said after a moment, ‘I’ll just sleep a bit.’

  It was, Adair saw, a kind of politeness, a way of saying that he wanted for a time to be alone with his thoughts. ‘Good-night, sir.’

  Reluctantly Adair let him go. ‘Good-night,’ he said. He meant to stay alert. Talk between them, he thought, might pick up again. But when he lay his head back against the wall he began, almost immediately, to drift off.

  But Carney was not finished after all.

  ‘Can I just ask, sir, what part of Ireland it is you’re from?’

  ‘Ballinahinch,’ Adair told him out of half-sleep, ‘in the west. Near Oughterard. Not far from Galway.’

  ‘Ah! I’ve heard of it,’ Carney said.

  ‘From one of the others?’ Adair asked, fully awake again.

  ‘No, sir, I don’t think so. But I might have been there, you know. I think I have, too. On me travels. I done a lot of trampin’ at one time. You know, after work. Maybe it was when you was there, sir.’

  ‘Maybe.’

  ‘Them days I tramped all over. This place and that. On the move.’

  His voice had a far-off quality, as if he might, in these few phrases, be looking back over a whole life. Adair knew he should keep him talking but his body was already plunging downward and he could do nothing but follow it. He had a flash of the view from the Great Room at the Park as he had first seen it as a child, three long windows each with its framed landscape like three giant pictures, all different – before Virgilia took him by the hand and led him to the low sill of one of them and he understood that it was one stretch of land out there. The lawns of the park, with deer grazing and occasionally freezing, looking up out of their other life as if they could not make out what you might be, the change of scent there in the close distance, a presence not yet embodied, the light on the soft fur of their underbellies an unearthly glow. And beyond, great oaks, the wood Eamon Fitzgibbon had planted in ’seventy-six. Then, further off, the powdery blue of mountains, faint as breath where they faded away into bluish air, the Twelve Pins.

  ‘It’s a long way off, eh?’ a voice was saying. But it was not so far. Not far at all, Adair thought, his head rolled back against the wall. Close even. So close you could let the breath go from your body and step right back into it, instantly. Instantly. The deer, knowing what it is now that has stepped into their world, scatter, their pale rumps dancing from side to side, hooves kicking back as you approach.

  2

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  * * *

  IT WAS ONE of the many contradictions of Adair’s existence that though he was by nature a man who would have liked nothing better than to see the sun rise and set each day on the same bit of turf, he had spent all the years of his manhood, thirteen to be precise, in one foreign army or another far from home – if by home one means not four walls and a roof, with a fire and a chair before it, but the place of one’s earliest affection, where that handful of men and women may be found who alone in all the world know a little of your wants, your habits, the affairs that come nearest your heart, and who care for them.

  He was born in Dublin but had no memory of that place except the odd one of steps going down into a greasy area below a creaking gate, and the smell of cats’ piss and coal, of cats’ piss on coal. Nothing more for the two years he must have spent crawling about the carpets of the various lodging houses his parents lived in, clutching at the edge of a table or a convenient skirt, or the series of old women or slovenly girls in whose charge he was left, and who fed and changed him and lugged him about the room when he cried. Not the snatch of a song one of his parents might have been going over at the piano or the smell of his father’s whiskers or his mother’s neck.

  His parents had been professional opera-singers. When he was not quite three they had been lost with the packet-boat from Holyhead, two of seventy-three souls who were drowned that February night and washed up in the days that followed on various parts of the coast. He had no memory of them and had not inherited their talent. He was not tone-deaf but could barely, even in consort, carry a tune – a fact he had deeply puzzled over. He wondered which of his parents’ qualities he had inherited, and if none, where his own came from: his doggedness, the sternness of manner that had given him, among his fellow officers, a reputation for being iron-hard and indefatigable but none for good-fellowship or gaiety, and among the ranks for being a devil for the rules.

  Those who pretended to know more of him than they did – the wives of his fellow officers, who in the little garrison towns he had served in were the authorities on everyone and everything – gave it out as their settled opinion that he was a spoiled priest. So much for the accident of being Irish and for what one man, one woman, may know of another.

  It was true that there was something in his nature that was grave and admired restraint. But restraint did not come naturally to him. What he saw when he looked into himself was laxity, a tendency to dreamy confusion and a pleasure too in giving himself up to it, a dampness of soul for which he had a kind of hopeless scorn and which he feared might after all be part of his operatic inheritance. He had grasped at an early age that few things are as simple as they appear or as we might wish them to be, and people never. He had a high regard for the incomprehensible. Perplexity, he thought, was the most natural consequence of one’s being in the world – which did not mean that one should yield to it, or to the disorder which, unless one took a firm hand, was its unhappy consequence. He had a horror of disorder, and when he had a horror of a thing it was usually, he found, because he had discovered it so plainly in himself.

  Disorder. Carelessness. He had seen a good deal of both, and believed he had been their victim, though it was not in his nature to complain.

  From what he could gather of his parents, they had lived very much like gypsies, carefree and, except in the exercise of their art, entirely without discipline. When he looked back he thought he saw a miserable creature of a year or so sitting tear-stained and fly-tormented in his own mess. The gypsy state had no romance for him but he wondered if it had not, for all that, left its mark. He was torn between an obsessive fastidiousness and a fascination, which belonged to his secret and sensual life, with dirt.

  While he was serving in Austria he had become for the first time a frequenter of opera. Even the poorest garrison town had its opera house and resident company, and he had gone back night after night, drawn by the belief that he might catch, behind the tawdry spectacle that saw lovers drive one another to the highest pitch of emotion and left the stage strewn with corpses, some shadow of that couple, his parents, who had once given life to these roles and whose spirit the roles themselves might reflect.

  He was surprised how fiercely his own emotions were caught up, how shaken he was. It was not his parents he saw in these savage creatures, in whom a kind of madness, a rage for self-destruction, was made by the music to seem like the highest goal of life, the most exquisite pleasure, but, in a shadowy reflection of their own drama, Virgilia and himself.

  His large capacity for irony had no force against the magic of it. He told himself it was a hoax, all elaborate illusionism; that the costumes which appeared so fine had sweat-stains at the armpits and were soiled and worn, that under the greasepaint the singers were sweating like ordinary citizens and were the same dyed-haired, loud-tongued crew who, after the performance, would come tumbling into the dirty little tavern opposite. There they would be hailed with a chorus of shouts, and his drunken fellow-officers would squeeze up, all coarse wool and leather, to
make room at the table for these ex-goddesses and slave-girls and nymphs who, if they were to ride on clouds again, would do so, after a litre of mulled wine and a steaming dish of wurst and sauerkraut, on goose-feathers in one of the tavern’s cramped little upstairs rooms. The baritone who had played the emperor, man of exquisite feeling and the dispenser of exquisite tortures, a huge fellow in a grubby kerchief and cheeks all pitted with shot, he would run into in another, even less reputable place, where he could be heard grunting, not too musically, behind a thin lath wall.

  All this was daily fare and known at every market-stall in the town, but the magic persisted. The moment the limelights flared and the velvet curtain went up, these sordid figures, with their dirty fingers and greasy hair, their nicknames, such as the Soup Ladle or the Wismar Eel, were transformed, and what in their lives was crude and shameful, unruly, unredeemable even, was raised, as the music gave shape to it, to ineffable order and beauty – but only insofar as the music did find a shape for it, and only so long as they moved in a world beyond themselves to give it body and a voice. That was a talent, he had to admit, a gift. And those, like himself, who lacked it? What but restraint could redeem them? What but a stern resistance to the destructive power of these emotions, these temptations to disintegration, that brought so much excitement to the nervous system? Wasn’t restraint the art of those who lacked a gift? For whom illusionism was too dangerous a drug to be administered save in modest doses between the rise of a curtain and its dusty fall?

  These matters he needed to pursue. Late at night, when the performance was over and half an hour in the smoky hilarity of the town’s one brothel had failed to kill in him the deceptive magic and the sweet extravagance of feeling its voices had aroused, he would go back to his room, lay aside the metal accoutrements of his office, strip to the waist, and without lighting a candle, with just the moon for light, wash slowly, almost dreamily, at the wash-stand basin. Then, resuming his shirt, light a candle and fix a reflector, prepare a pen and, seated at the little sloping desk, begin to write: Dear Virgilia . . .

  His preparations were a ritual for approaching her. So was the writing. Occasionally, to keep himself grounded, he would push his nose into the sleeve of his shirt, which he had worn all day, and smell stale cigar-smoke, a woman’s scented powder, his own sweat. There was no inconsistency between this and the care with which he had sponged his face, his neck, his armpits, his breast – or if there was, it was one he needed. He could write with utter frankness; he had no need, with her, to hide the brutalities of the world he moved in; they would not shock her. What was difficult was the uncovering of his feelings, the exploration of what, once he had expressed it, would be a dangerous fact between them.

  Dear Virgilia . . .

  ‘. . . This swooning tendency to disintegration that I find it so necessary, if hard, to resist, is, I know, just what you feel we should surrender to. How many times, over the years, have I asked myself why for you – or so you believe – there is no danger in excess, since only in the intense, the excessive, do our true natures emerge. Are you quite unafraid of your “true” nature? Can you be so sure of what it is? What if it is monstrous? Is it only because I am less brave than you, less willing to set all at hazard, as these tenors and sopranos do, in the name of a force that takes no heed of what is evil or good or kind or lawful, or conducive to the proper behaviour of citizens, but springs from something further back in us, more obscure, more ancient than the law and all our world of carriage-lamps and roast meat and shaving water; speaks the language of cruelty that we dream in, the language of blood-passion and blood revenge that drives our vocal acrobats to the highest notes in their range and takes them beyond themselves into regions where other rules apply than nature knows or our anxious law-givers – is it only timidity on my part, the cowardice of the man with an overplus of imagination but no gift either to contain or express it, that makes me fly to restraint when I know that even the most rigorous discipline is but the king’s hand raised ironically, hopelessly, against the tide . . .?’

  The letters that came in reply were full of excited feeling – of feelings excited by his own, by his need to provoke them. He read feverishly, scanning the pages.

  Later, he would go back and savour them, search her phrases for what she might be saying under the bright words she spun out of herself that spoke more, as his did, than they stated. But first he sought something else. For always, slipped in almost as an afterthought, because it would surely interest him, was some mention of Fergus. He waited for it. It was always there. A bald statement, perfectly matter-of-fact among so much extravagant feeling, but he believed, if he put his face to the page, he would feel the extra heat given off by the ink in which she had written: ‘Fergus was here on Thursday last and we had a pleasant dinner’; or ‘Fergus raced last week at Galway. Won of course, but how could he not, on a splendid new mare?’

  It was with the same matter-of-factness that she reported – how long ago – a year, was it only a year? – he was still in Galicia, and could not have guessed what the simple statement would mean, how far it would take him out of his life, though he knew the emotion she must have forced down in herself to write so casually: ‘Fergus is gone, no one knows where. Mama Aimée is frantic, as you will no doubt hear. Do you know anything of this?’

  His refuge was the profession he had chosen. He was not idealistic. He had no chance to be. Coming into the world after the great epoch of arms, it did not disappoint him, as it did some of his contemporaries, that their generation was to be denied the delirium of victories and disasters that had sown so many fields, from Russia to the Peninsula, with greatcoat buttons, and carried their fathers from the headstrong intoxications of adolescence to a scarred and glorious old age. Nor did it dampen his sense of soldierly pride that he was more often required to see to the needs of his men’s stomachs and the state of their feet than to drive them forward in a charge. The military life may be a clinking and jangling business, at least to spectators, but it also has its routine side, which did not entirely displease him. He took a kind of satisfaction in submitting himself to humble duties. They were the refuge. Though he knew that a man who had to be bullied out of his easy acceptance of filth, and would rather be left to wallow, will not thank you for it.

  There was in him a need to be of service, to be necessary. It went back, he thought, to the moment in his childhood when he had become the unnecessary adjunct to a household whose only reason for loving or keeping him, unless he created one of his own, was the affection his new mother felt for his old one, the school-friend of her youth. Of the nature of that affection he knew nothing, except that it had survived the twenty years of their separation and the fact that their lives had gone such different ways. Without quite knowing what he was about, he had set out to recreate it; to make himself necessary to Aimée Connellan’s heart as his mother had, and in this way not only to find a place of his own there but catch, in whatever affection he could command, the shadow of the mother he could not recall.

  Just over six feet tall, Aimée Connellan was known all over the west as the finest horsewoman in the county. She loved her horses, gossip said, better than she loved her husband. This was untrue. She doted on Mr Connellan. Six years her junior, he was a great gambler and notorious womanizer, and, though he was seldom at home, when he did appear, often with a dozen noisy companions who wanted supper, and whiskey and water and a couple of tables for cards, they were so jolly and companionable, fell in so well together, that in the fourteen years of their marriage barely a year had passed when she was not expecting a child. Unhappily, none of them had survived. Ellersley, a small manor house in a hundred and fifty acres, was a house of ghosts, of little names unspoken but recorded in stone behind an iron grille at the end of a Walk. When there were no visitors to dine or play cards or set out on one of the local hunts, the household was a sad one. It had been the business of his coming to brighten it. Even as a child he had recognized that, both the sadness and the
light he was expected to spread.

  He was a grave little boy, and had come with his own sense of loss, though no one, after his first days in the house, ever mentioned it. All that was asked of him, in that absence of names and faces, was to chatter and be sturdy and to demand as noisily as he pleased a place for himself. The row he made on the stairs, which in another, less haunted household might have been complained of, was looked upon, like his rude health, as a kind of wonder in a house where no child had ever run up and down the basement stairs, or left dirty hand-prints on a wall, or banged with a spoon and said, ‘I won’t.’

  He was recklessly indulged. Not, it is true, by the master and mistress of the house, who were much like children themselves – they seemed afraid of handling him, and when he was brought in to say good-night or to be shown off to visitors, could not always remember what he was called; but the servant girls in the kitchen, when they were not soaking stewpans or peeling potatoes in a bucket of muddy water, were forever snatching him up and trying to cuddle him. Calling him their buttered bun, they would tempt him with bowls of junket to sit on their lap, or haul him dizzy with laughter about the wet floor they were mopping with their skirts up round their legs, or take him off to feed the speckled hens that set their feet down so carefully, so elegantly – ‘Look at that one, Lady Muck’ – as they strutted about the yard.

  But it was not in his nature to be spoiled. He remained soberly withdrawn and was wary of giving himself too freely.

  ‘He’s an old-fashioned little lad, isn’t ’e?’ was how Paddy Mangan put it. ‘You are, aren’t you, eh? Old-fashioned.’

  And he, with a self-important little frown, would answer solemnly, ‘Yes, I am,’ as if he had given the thing close consideration and come to the conclusion that Paddy Mangan, on the whole, was right.

 
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