The conversations at cur.., p.5
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       The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.5

           David Malouf
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  Paddy did most of the work around the place and was sometimes butler, sometimes coachman (when it was a question only of the cart) and tender of the row of bay-trees and dwarf pomegranates that stood in tubs of Chinese blue-and-white in the marble entrance-hall, which he watered from a can, wearing a special apron. The child liked to trot along in his wake: to watch him, with a green shade over his eyes, take a lock to pieces, oil it, then put it together again, or, sitting in his shirt-sleeves at a sunny bench, mend boots with an awl and waxed thread while the kennel dogs put up a racket at the end of the yard and Mama Aimée’s pekinese, Dancer, yapped away on the first-floor balcony; or to help him lubricate the wheels of the carriage, which was seldom used but when it was rolled out of the dark carriage-house, by Paddy and a little gang of grooms and one of the footmen, needed a good deal of attention if it was to meet the demands of the master, whose eye, in all matters of social form, was very precise.

  Paddy Mangan was also, though he could neither read nor write, chief counsellor to the lady of the house.

  He had come to her from the aunts who had brought her up, Miss Julia and Miss Isabel, and had known Mama Aimée since she was a girl. They had violent quarrels in which Paddy, who always had the upper hand, treated her as if she was still in her aunts’ house and nine years old. ‘I’m on’y bein’ kind,’ he told Mrs Upshaw, the housekeeper, who found it scandalous that they should stand, the mistress and this crude old man, shouting at one another in the public hall. ‘If I don’t rein ’er in,’ he explained, ‘no one will. She’s spoiled. Niver had a word of discipline except what I give her.’

  This had been the style of her aunts’ house, a generation back, which Mama Aimée had allowed him to carry over into her own because she knew no other.

  The aunts, her mother’s sisters, had been women of the old sort, untouched by modern notions of primness or sensibility. They had still been alive, though deaf and creaky, when Adair first came to Ellersley. He had been terrified of them. They boomed, wore huge old-fashioned skirts of a brownish rusty colour with a hoop underneath that he had to clamber over to be kissed, and a great many tucks and ribbons, all smelling of stale violets and the snuff they took. They died within a week of one another, and the wake, which the whole county attended, lasted two days and a night.

  One day, coming to the door of his new mother’s writing-room, he found her seated at the secretaire with her head in her hands. She was weeping.

  He stood at the threshold, gravely absorbed by this demonstration of an emotion that made her different from the person who, till now, he had known only as either very jolly, laughing and exchanging coarse jokes with her husband’s friends, or, all exasperation, shouting at Paddy in the hall, or mooning about in the servants’ hall where, Mrs Upshaw complained, she made a terrible nuisance of herself, poking into things she knew nothing of – mostly, the servant girls opined, because she was bored to death, poor soul, with that devil of a Mister Connellan away in Dublin chasing after countesses: which did not, Mrs Upshaw insisted, cutting off this sort of insubordinate talk, excuse her wanting to look into the linen cupboard. What would she know about sheets and pillowcases except that they were supposed to smell of lavender and that you slept in ’em?

  And now here she was quite changed. With her shoulders in the green silk dress racked with sobs, and the snappish Dancer sitting at her feet with his paws in front of him, very quiet, and his round eyes, in the squashed pug face, fixed upon her. The child leaned in at the door-frame, held back, though he was curious, by the magic that forbade him ever to cross this particular threshold.

  It was Dancer who found him and came trotting up. When he leaned down to take Dancer in his arms she raised her head, and Dancer, avoiding him, ran back to her.

  ‘Ah,’ she said, ‘Michael, it’s you.’

  She opened her arms and very gingerly he ventured on to the carpet, which was pale and plushy, and she clasped him. She began to weep again, and stroked his hair, and began to tell him things he could make no sense of except that he could feel her hurt, then her anger, then her angry laughter, then her grief, which came back again all in a gust. And all this while, she clasped him tight to her breast and he felt the changes of feeling in the softening of her flesh, or its hardness. He was alarmed to be so close to the source of so much emotion but happy to have her make use of him.

  He was not quite four – it was just before Fergus was born.

  She acquired the habit, after that, of coming whenever she was troubled and opening her heart to him. He would sit very still, stunned almost to breathlessness by the fierceness of her talk, waiting for the moment when she would again fling herself upon him and squeeze, a thing he dreaded but at the same time hotly longed for. He had learned that so long as her anger lasted, and she kept raging, he would be left to clench his teeth and listen. It was only in the frustration of finding no more words that she would try to impose on him in a more physical way the extremity of her feelings, snatching him up in her arms and forcing her fingers into the bones of his shoulders, splashing hot tears on his neck.

  The presence of so much emotion that was not his own, which he wanted to share but was afraid of, made him feel guilty. He wondered if some of her trouble might not have to do with him, with his failure to listen properly to what she was telling him. He would hold himself stiffly, trying to catch, now that there were no more troubling words, some other indication of what it was and what she wanted of him. But his larger guilt was for the moment when he surrendered to her softness, to the voluptuous pleasure of laying his cheek to her breast, of feeling her passionate kisses, as she sobbed, on his ears, his neck, in his hair.

  There was also a special smell to these occasions, which he came to associate with her tears and his own pleasurable discomfort. It was a long time before he understood what it was.

  ‘She’s been hitting the you-know-what again,’ he heard Paddy tell Mrs Upshaw.

  ‘I know what,’ the boldest of the girls piped up, Lizzy.

  ‘You know nothing,’ Mrs Upshaw told her sharply. ‘I’ll give you knowing things!’

  He looked from one to another of them, trying to catch a clue. Under Mrs Upshaw’s eagle eye, the girls were spooning apricots into jars and topping them up with thick yellow liquor, the table before them stacked with columns of light. The girls’ faces, which were pallid as usual and none too clean, had the light, he thought, of the sun on them. Wasps, attracted by the syrup, whose sweet smell thickened the air, kept blundering in through the open window and reeling drunkenly round the table or buzzing at the girls’ heads, as if they were the source of so much golden sweetness.

  ‘Drat,’ Katie cursed. ‘Get off me!’

  Thwack! She brought a swatter down on the table-top.

  Paddy was about to speak again.

  ‘Ears,’ Mrs Upshaw warned. ‘Big ears,’ with a hard look at the girls, ‘and little ears. I’m surprised at you.’

  Though free enough with her own complaints and criticisms, the moment anyone else spoke up, she sprang to her lady’s defence. She was jealous of Paddy’s place in the household, which she found anomalous; it was not what she was used to. It surprised her, considering his lack of formal training and plain ignorance, that he should be such a force. She was very superior. She was trusted with the keys to the tea caddies, administered the sugar lumps, supervised the changing of sheets and pillowcases and bolster-slips. Except in the actual presence of Mama Aimée, when she became tongue-tied with awe, she saw herself so completely as the mistress of the house that she watched every doily or napkin as if it were her own and regarded the brightness of the brass rods that held down the stair-carpets as a measure of her shining influence on the lives of ‘the people upstairs’.

  She looked at the child to see how much he had grasped of all this. He avoided her eye. Drew patterns with his finger on the pine table-top.

  Without knowing it, he had already understood.

  Mama Aimée was thirty-eight when Fergus was born
, and the household was uncertain for a whole month before whether it was a birth or another funeral they were preparing for. James Connellan arrived and was lovingly attentive, but had little hope that what had failed so often before would succeed on this occasion, and was drunk all week. Though underweight and more than a fortnight premature, the child lived, but they hung back and postponed the celebrations; so long that in the end there were none, not even after the baptism in the little chapel at the end of the Walk.

  From the beginning Mama Aimée’s attitude to him was fearful and softly guarded. Her fear was that if she showed too much interest he would, like the others, be taken; if she looked too hard at his blue eyes and little perfect fingernails and ears, he would vanish.

  She was not a believer but she was powerfully superstitious. There were watchers, spirits born out of the peat bog, creatures with wolf-fangs and withered dugs and thin grey hair who were observing her every movement or look. If they saw how full of need she was, they would work their spell and the boy would sicken. They had to be deceived. She must harden her heart, never look at him except sideways, till he was safe.

  And it was true, there was something about the child that was uncanny. He wasn’t like a human child – that was the whispered talk among the servant girls, who lived in the same world of folk-tales and old pagan superstitions as their mistress, who had heard this secret lore thirty years ago from peasant girls just like them in her aunts’ kitchen.

  He never cried.

  From the start, too, he would try to catch your eye with his blue one and had in his look all the knowledge of another order of beings, an angel maybe, maybe the opposite.

  He was dazzling. It was as if the milk he sucked from the wet nurse turned to light. His skin shone with it.

  Only Adair felt free to give the child his unguarded affection. Once he had put on a little strength and could be lifted out of his cradle, he lugged him everywhere; down to the kitchen, to play on the floor while all the daily business of the household was being organized; around the big rooms upstairs, to be shown this or that object that the older child thought might take his fancy: the glass flowers in the depths of a paperweight, the inscription on a sword, the little figures in peasant costume who came out of the barometer – favourites of his own that he hoped might anchor the boy’s heart and make him stay.

  He had been allowed all this, he saw later, because he was ignorant. Because the watchers, his young mind having no fear of them, had no power over him. So long as he had charge of the child they dared not touch him.

  Kitchen lore.

  So he had become, in his little old-fashioned way, both brother to Fergus and nurse, and mother and father too; expert in the recognition of all his needs, and without either embarrassment or fuss, attending to them. Quite soon he was consulted on everything to do with Fergus as if he alone had access to what the child, who was not yet a human child, might demand if he was to settle among them.

  But it was no special power he had. Simply that he too was a child, and had for the first time opened his heart and found a language of affection which, so long as that affection was unquestioned, could not be misunderstood.


  * * *

  * * *

  ‘TELL ME,’ ADAIR said, ‘is there someone, at home in Ireland maybe, that you want – informed?’

  ‘Informed, sir?’

  The man’s brow creased. He had not understood. Then he did.

  ‘No, sir, I’m an orphan, sir, I don’t reckon as there’s anyone would remember me. I was just here an’ about like, wanderin’. It weren’t a bad life. Except for the dogs.’

  But the invocation of Ireland had set something off in him. He sat quiet, dark and brooding.

  ‘Bloody dogs,’ he said, under his breath. Then, and the change of tone brought him back into the hut again: ‘Ireland’s a green place,’ he said, as if Adair might never have known it. ‘I think sometimes that this place – you know, is a punishment on a man just in itself. Like as if they’d taken Ireland and turned it into a place that made things as hard as they ever could be in this world. I feel sometimes, as if maybe I’ve never really left it. Just got meself into a part of it, you know, that’s meant for those that’ve gone wrong in life, taken a wrong turning. Could that be it, sir, do you think? When I first come here and see these natives, these black fellers, I thought they was just like us – you know, on’y starved and burned black as a punishment. I thought, so that’s what we’re in for. Then I thought, maybe if I work me crimes out, or me sins, which is more difficult, I’ll just maybe wake up one mornin’ and there it’ll be, all fresh and green, the old country. I’ll be back. Well, it never happened of course.’ He sat, staring again into the dark before him. ‘It’s a fearful place, sir. You must feel that.’

  ‘And why,’ Adair said with a touch of humour, ‘do you think I am here? For what sins committed?’

  The man was taken aback. ‘I wouldn’ know that, sir,’ he said at last. ‘It’s for each man to say for himself. An’ get out as best he can.’

  ‘And did you really believe that? That this place is just Ireland in another way of thinking? An Ireland that has gone bad?’

  ‘I told you, sir, I’m ignorant, I didn’ know what to think. I was tryin’ to explain to meself. Why one place should be so green and like, easy – if it was hard too, at times – and the birds so – well sir, you know what the birds was. Larks an’ that, yaffles – I loved them birds. It must mean something, I thought, that this place should be so dry and cursed, with nothin’ in sight that a man can get a handle on, an’ every day so hard. Was that wrong then? Was there never any way of gettin’ back? For any of us?’

  ‘I don’t say that. – I don’t know, Carney,’ he said at last. ‘You ask me things I can’t answer. A man can do anything he wants, if he puts his mind to it. Or so they tell us.’

  ‘Do they, sir? Well,’ he said slowly, ‘a lot of what they tell us turns out to be untrue. That’s what I found. Bloody lies, in fact. Even an ignorant man will find that out. Sooner or later.’

  Adair smiled to himself. Did the fellow think he had not?

  ‘It’s hard enough tryin’ to find out the way things are, without they bloody lie to us as well.’

  ‘Do you always tell the truth then?’

  ‘No sir, I do not, an’ I’ll admit it. But I had to get by, sir, an’ how else could I do it? I had me skin to save.’

  ‘Every man has his skin to save.’

  ‘Is that right, sir? Even them as has power?’

  ‘Oh yes, those most of all.’

  ‘Well then! I thought they would of been safe and easy. I thought their lyin’ was just a way of holdin’ us down – you know, keepin’ us ignorant. And poor.’

  Adair looked hard at the man. There was a moment of silence.

  ‘Can I ask you, sir? – I told you what I think of this country. Maybe it’s what a man like me would think, considerin’, an’ isn’t the truth. I mean, it was always a punishment to me, an’ that’s how I took it. But you, sir. What is it to you? You’re free to leave any time you like. But you’re here.’

  What could he answer? That it had been imposed upon him too? Not as a punishment but in ways that were equally inescapable. How to explain, save by beginning on a story there was no time to finish and might have no end, it went back so far and involved so many byways of feeling that to another would be inexplicable; a rigmarole of incomprehensible motives, misguided folly, hopeless reachings after what from the beginning was already lost, all the confused and indirect ways by which he had come to a place ten thousand miles from where he began – to this particular spot in it, this moment when a stranger to whom he had, after all, nothing to say, could give him a straight look and ask.

  But what the man said was true. Here he was, and some quality of the country, some effect of the high clear skies, so unlike the skies of Ireland, that raised the ceiling of the world by pushing up the very roof of your skull, had got into his head and ch
anged his sense of what lay before, and behind too. So much space, so much distance under the dry air, had opened his eyes to the long view, as even the great plains of Poland, in the years he served there, had not, since these distances were empty, with no roads across them, no prospect of a village up ahead, however mean, with muddy alleys where pigs wallowed, and rotten fences and whitewashed huts with the dome of a little wooden church over all; only a high, wide emptiness that drew you on into an opening distance in yourself in which the questions that posed themselves had no easy sociable answer, concerned only yourself and what there was at last, or might be, between you and the harsh, unchanged and unchanging earth, and above, the unchanged, unchangeable stars.

  Three days ago, riding across the coastal plain towards the foothills of the Range, he had passed farms where they were bringing in the harvest.

  A dry country, it’s true; yellow, burned-looking, not lush like home. But the earth had taken the unaccustomed seed. It had sprouted, broken ground, shot up, thickened, been reaped, and was now being laid out in bundles in stubble-fields. Men and women, small children too, were staggering over the land with great stooks in their arms, to lean them one against the other and make, in a place that had never known such a thing in all of previous time, a scene, busy, productive, that had at first glance the immemorial order of a landscape at home, till you raised your eyes and saw what a tiny patch of order it was in the surrounding bush and against the jagged wilderness of the mountains beyond.

  He had heard, as he passed, the voice of a little girl calling: ‘Dadeeee . . .’, a rope of breath rising and looping through the air; and long after he had begun the climb into the foothills, above the strange tinking of bellbirds, the echo of it stayed with him. It hung on in his head, but changed, as he turned away, into the cry of a raven, and he thought again, less sentimentally now, of the land he had grown up in. A sorrowful land, with the fine rain thin as smoke blowing in from the Atlantic so that the taste of it was there on your lip, the smell of it in sheets that had been laid over a bush to dry. Salt and sorrow over the fields, a sad country; mournful, made human by the long sorrows it had endured, the sorrows yet to come.

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