The conversations at cur.., p.6
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       The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.6

           David Malouf
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  Many of those families down there were ones whose menfolk, back home on the other side of the world, poor tenant farmers or day-labourers, would have had no prospect in all eternity of owning even an acre of land, and here they were offered hundreds if they had the strength to tear it out of the wilderness and plough and work it. That surely was something.

  The huts that stood off in the distance were dirt-floored cabins, one-roomed, windowless, but might one day, if the seasons were kind, be replaced with houses of cut stone such as the better sort of farmers had already established, and the children who turned to watch him pass, wiry boys and long-legged little girls who raised their tanned faces and pale hands, would have a life that was unimaginable to their cousins at home, who were still cutting peat or driving cows into a shitty byre or watching sheep in a glen among flattened heather. It might fail, all this. But then again, it might not.

  What did he think of this country? It wasn’t one. It was a place that was still being made habitable. A venture, another example of the inextinguishable will of men and women to make room for themselves, some patch of the earth, however small, where they could stand up, feel the ground under their feet and say, This is mine, I have made it, I have made it mine. A place where they could lie down too and make children and say, This is yours, I am giving it to you, in trust. A place where a family could come to the table and pass from hand to hand dishes with food on them, mutton, potatoes, that they had made the land yield up to them, the loaf with the knife beside it and the thick slices handed round, which was seed they had planted, fat grains they had rolled between thumb and forefinger while they looked up anxiously at the sky, a weight of stooks they had lugged over the field to lean one against the other in the old pattern while the sweat ran down into their eyes and dust and sweat ran down from their armpits.

  What did he know of this country? Better ask those who had set their lives down here and would risk the venture. He was a stranger here, a passer-by. He would go eventually and not come back. He had no right to speak.

  Some of this he might have said to Carney, but the man’s mind, moving back, had already moved elsewhere. He sat now, hunched in thought. At last he said:

  ‘Thank you, sir.’

  ‘For what?’

  ‘For bein’ truthful with me. I appreciate it.’

  ‘I’m no more truthful than any other man. I mean, Carney,’ he said more gently, ‘you should trust no one. No one.’

  ‘I see, sir. Very well, sir.’ He did not point out that wise as this advice might be, he would have little chance to make use of it. At last, after a long silence he spoke again.

  ‘Can I tell you something, sir?’

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘When you asked, sir, if there was anyone as should be told, I suppose you meant, was there anyone would have a memory of me. Well, there isn’t no one to be told, but there is someone who might, every now and again, keep a memory of me. Not of me exactly – me name, I mean. I don’t believe they would ever of known that. But of –’ His hand moved vaguely to indicate what might have been his body, or some other more nebulous entity that hovered around it, of which his chest and shoulders were the only thing he could point to that could evoke its existence.

  ‘I was in the town of Limerick – do you know it, sir? I don’t much, I only been there the once. I was in the marketplace, you know – waitin’ for work. Standin’ there alongside of a lot of other fellers. It was a raw, cold day, just before Christmas, and we was all huddled together like, stampin’ our feet and huggin’ ourselves to keep warm. Waitin’ to be chosen. That’s how it happens, sir, in case you don’t have experience of it. You stand there and the farmers come, or the stewards if it’s a big place, an’ they look you over like, to see what you might be good for. I never had much fear I wouldn’ be chose. I was young then, not more ’n twenty I reckon, an’ big, as you see. An’ I’d learned the trick of it by then. It was best, you know, to look – as if you wouldn’ give trouble. I didn’t normally wait long, an’ I didn’t this time, neither. Two fellers come right up to me and says: “You. Come on.” I didn’ like it much. I seen them standin’ apart, sort of lookin’ me over in a way I didn’ like, and they chose just the one of us. That’s odd, I thought. Still, what could I do? I was there to be hired. I couldn’ do nothing but follow.

  ‘We went round to the yard of an inn where there was a trap waitin’, and we drove about six miles into the countryside. It was cold. The one feller, he was all in brown, had a rug over his knees, the other not. I sat shiverin’. I remember it was all snow once you got beyond the last of the muddy streets o’ the town, and there was more to come, just hanging there, waitin’ to fall – you know how it is, sir, the ground cold but the air somehow warmish. You know then that there’s snow about. And the light – everything has a touch of blue to it. That’s the sort of day it was.

  ‘Anyway, we come at last to a set of gates and a drive round a circle in front of a house, and the one feller throws the rug off and jumps down and says: “Tilley’ll look after you.” Tilley was older, with grey whiskers.

  ‘We went round the back, into a yard with pools of frozen milk between the pavin’s and a great stack o’ dung in one corner, black and smoking, an’ a feller goin’ at it with a pitchfork, that turned and stared at me, curious like, and a little barefoot lad leading a bull with a ring through its nose that was lifting its head and roaring so that breath come out of its nostrils. It was pulling against the rope and the little lad had his heels dug in, cursing.

  ‘“Get on,” Tilley shouted, and the feller on the dungheap turned away and began to pitch into the pile, but still had an eye on me – I knew that sideways, sly look, I could tell. An’ the little lad was stopped still, staring.

  ‘What’s this? I thought.

  ‘We come to the kitchen. There was a woman there, oldish, an’ a young one come out from under the stairs. Tilley said: “This feller’ll need a bath and a new set of clothes.”

  ‘I wanted to ask what work I was to do, but the old ’un just shrugged ’er shoulders and told the young ’un to bring out the tub, then looked at me, hopeless like – I was all rags – and said: “All right, lad, get them things off.”

  ‘When I stopped a minute, you know, shy like, she laughed and said: “What do you think? That we’ll be lookin’ at you? Molly, will you want to be lookin’ at the lad t’ see what ’e’s got?” The girl went red in the face. “No, missus,” she said, “not me. I wouldn’ look if you paid me. I’m scared t’ look at ’im at all.” “So then,” the old girl says, “get yerself ready and I promise I won’t make the water too hot.”

  ‘So I stripped meself, and then, when she’d filled the tub I climbed in an’ the old ’un washed me hair and took a scrubbin’ brush to me back an’ all – I was niver so clean in all me life – an’ I put on the clothes they brought. Which was a gentleman’s clothes, and they fit me pretty well except for the shoes, which pinched, I could hardly get into ’em. A white shirt, which someone had been wearing, but that didn’ worry me. No jacket. Then the old ’un combed me hair and stood back and give me a weird look and laughed, and said: “Just as well she’s blind, poor darlin’.” But the young ’un did not laugh. “God help ’er,” she said, and would not look at me. “Go wan,” the old ’un said when she had looked me over again. “Through there.”

  ‘She pushed me out into a dark low little passageway, all wooden walls, and an old ’un, another, all in black, was sittin’ there on a little three-legged creepie workin’ a pair a’ needles. She looked me up and down and made a little like laughing sound in her throat and shouted. “Tilley!”

  ‘He come out of a low door. “Stand back,” he said.

  ‘He looked me over and did not look pleased. Then he turned back into the door: “The feller, sir.”

  ‘It was the gentleman, the one in brown. He was sitting at a desk and peering up at me through a pair of round little glasses.

  ‘“Well,” he said, “here’s a

  ‘He got up and walked round me once, then again, then stood with his hands behind his back, silent like, considerin’. Then sat back down again.

  ‘“You shall have a sovereign,” he says. “That’s a great deal of money. Do you know how much that is?”

  ‘“Yes, sir, I do,” I says.

  ‘“Do you read at all?” he asks me. I admitted I did not. “Good,” he says. “You will forget what happens here today, do you understand that? One shilling of the sovereign is for what you will have to do, which is nothing much. To stand for five minutes and do and say nothing. Whatever happens, you stand still and hold your tongue. Understood? The rest of the sovereign, that is nineteen shillings out of the twenty, you get for doing even less. For forgetting you have ever been here. One shilling for one kind of silence, nineteen for the other.”

  ‘He gave a little laugh at that, but it was not for my benefit, the little joke he made. He thought I would not understand it.

  ‘“Now, you know your part, all you have to do is play it. You stand still and say nothing. Can you manage that? And the sovereign – here it is, safe and sound in my breast pocket – you shall have to go away with, immediately after,” and he dropped the coin, which was a bright new one, into the pocket of his waistcoat and patted it, and smiled. But Tilley did not. He coughed and looked at his boots, and we all stayed quiet till the brown man pulled his chair back and said, “Very well Tilley. Might as well begin. And remember, you, from this time on, not a word!”

  ‘They led me back into the hallway where the old woman with the needles sat over her knitting, then through a door at the end into a kind of parlour that looked out to the lawn.

  ‘What struck me was the whiteness. Snow! The gleam of it through the low window hit me clean between the eyes. The whole room was lit.

  ‘There was an old lady there with a lot of clothes on and a wig that didn’t fit and a walkin’ stick. She was sort of spread out wide all over a little sofa where she sat leaning forward on the stick. An’ stood in the winder with her back to us was another, a child I thought it was, she was that little. But as soon as she heard us come in she turned – it was a young girl – and looked right at me, but in such a strange way I thought she might be simple like. “What is it?” she said, and stood there with her lips a little apart. “Has he come?”

  ‘I see then that she was blind.

  ‘We all stood very quiet, me an’ the brown man an’ Tilley. An’ the old lady in the wig looked at her, tragic like, an’ shook her head, an’ looked at the brown man, an’ he lifted a finger, just the one, like this, warnin’ her to be quiet, an’ she shook her head again an’ looked at her lap. The girl was just stood still in the middle of the room.

  ‘She was young, and very little, undergrown like, and pale.

  ‘The brown man made a sign to me to stand still, then he took the girl’s arm, just here under the elbow, and at the same time give me a look and lifted his chin, which meant I should lift my chin. Which I did, and still didn’ know what else I should do, so I just stood. On’y me heart started up, I don’t know why. In a minute it was beatin’ so fast it was like I was running, running away from somethin’, dead scared. It was beatin’ so hard I could hear it, an’ I thought they must of been able to hear it too – how could they miss it? I thought – an’ when the brown man, with just a little shove like, set ’er loose, I thought she ’ud find me by that, by the way me heart was going. But from the way she raised her head I knew she was smelling me out – the way a dog would. It’s a strange thing, that is – I can’t tell you. I thought, this won’t work, she’ll smell the difference. She must. You see, sir, I was beginnin’ to sweat. She’ll smell that, I thought, but what can I do about it? They didn’ pay me not to sweat. She come very close then and put ’er face into me shirt – her head come just to me breast here – and I felt the breath go out of ’er and a shiver went over me.

  ‘She put ’er hand up then and her fingers touched me. She felt round the shape of me ear. This one. Then across me cheek and down to the corner of me lip. Over the top one, then back acrost the bottom, then into the hollow place under it.’ – His rough hand as he spoke was moving over the broken features.

  ‘Well, I just shut me eyes and let ’er. It was like lyin’ still, you know, in the dark, an’ lettin’ some creature – I don’t know what it might be – walk over your face, and you with no power to cry out or brush it away. But it was gentle like. She was searchin’ me out. Tryin’ to discover who it was. This is a strange thing, I told meself. It’s like a dream.

  ‘I kept me eyes shut like I was asleep, trying to keep me balance there in them shoes, holdin’ me breath. And her hand went back to me ear, and across me face again, and down to me lips.

  ‘I’d never thought about me ear – not really thought. It was just there. But when her touch went all over it I felt it sort of light up, like, and glow. Me lips the same. They swelled up, I could feel the blood in them. Then her fingers went to the other ear, the right one. Then down me neck into me shirt, which was open, to the bit of gristle here in me throat, and I swallowed and it jumped up, an’ I had to clear me throat, an’ the brown man must of thought I was goin’ to speak, I felt him stir, an’ I opened me eyes, an’ she stepped back an’ was frowning at me. There was a little crease, just here, between her brows.

  ‘I’d sort of felt, while I had me eyes shut, there was just the two of us. Both out in a field somewhere, or a wood it might be, in the dark. But I seen then that the others was there, all watchin’.

  ‘Her head come forward. I seen the parting in the top of her head. She puts her nose into me shirt.

  ‘I was beginnin’ to sweat bad by now. She’ll know now, I thought. When her face touched my skin another shiver went over me – she felt it and a little smile come to her lips. She stood like that for a long time, breathin’ in the smell of me – was she fooled? – an’ I looked across and saw the old lady had a lace handkerchief to her lips, and tears runnin’ down her cheeks, an’ the truth was, I was upset and – There was something else as well. I mean, I’d stiffened up, if you know what I mean, an’ I was ashamed to have to stand there with them others watchin’ where they could see it. Me stiff cock, if you’ll excuse the expression sir, standin’ up in them tight pants they’d put me in.

  ‘Her face was close. I could look right into it. Tears had come into her eyes an’ I watched ’em spill over and start to run down her cheeks. She give a kind of groan, an’ then her hand went for me, for me cock, an’ felt it, that it was stiff, an’ she sort of collapsed against me – I nearly cried out then – an’ started to sob, an’ the old lady’s mouth opened, an’ the brown man pulled her away, an’ she was beginnin’ to cry out something terrible – it went right through me, I felt so sorry for her grief, or her disappointment, I don’t know what it was. She started to struggle and scream out, an’ I could still hear ’er when Tilley got me out of the room and the door shut behind us. A terrible sound, sir, I can hear it still. I was shakin’ so much I could hardly stand.

  ‘Well, they took me back to the kitchen and give me me dinner. You’d think maybe I couldn’ eat after all that. I thought I couldn’t neither, I felt that low. It was roast beef, a good thick slice, with gravy and potaters. I did eat it. I didn’ know where I’d get a better feed. There was a pudding and I ate that too. The ol’ girl who’d washed me didn’ have much to say now and the young ’un wouldn’t look at me.

  ‘Afterwards the brown man come and give me the sovereign, and they give me the clothes to go away in, with me own wrapped up in a bit of paper. The shoes too. But they was no good to walk in, so I sat under a hedge and took ’em off, and sold them later for six shillings. So I did well enough. But it wasn’t a day’s work I was proud of. It worried me. Like I don’t know to this day who it was – a dead man maybe – they had me play, and what they were getting out of it, out of foolin’ her, I mean, the feller in brown whose sovereign I took, the ol’ lady. And why me? Whe
n they come into the market and looked around like, why it was me they took.

  ‘Afterwards I thought a lot about that. I’d go over an’ over it. I’d lie in the dark, like, and touch me ear the way she did. This one. Then run me hand over the cheek, then the top lip, then the bottom. The truth is, no one ever touched me like that, sir, either before nor after. Then I’d hear that terrible cryin’ an’ wonder what it was I’d done to ’er.

  ‘Something else, as well. I used to feel sometimes, that when she searched me out like that she might of discovered something – an’ I wonder what. I’d have give the sovereign back, I reckon, ten times over, to know. I only drank it away. I’d like – you know, to ask ’er. If she’s still alive, poor soul, and has kept a memory of it. Which she must do, surely, don’t you think, sir? Because it would of meant more to her. Though it meant something to me too, even if it wasn’t intended that way. Our life is a strange thing, sir, don’t you think? Well, I don’t know that that’s a question, exactly – You’ll be glad, sir.’ He gave a wet laugh. ‘One less to answer.’


  * * *

  * * *

  WHEN HE WAS five, with Paddy in a frieze coat to drive him, he was sent two miles away to the Park, to learn his letters with the daughter of a local landowner, and Mama Aimée’s great friend, Eamon Fitzgibbon – a practical arrangement and an excellent opportunity since this idiosyncratic gentleman had decided that his daughter, the child of a late second marriage, should have the same education he had given to the three grown-up sons of the first. She was a bright little girl, a few weeks older than Adair, called Virgilia, who when he arrived already knew her letters and could read a little. Instead of intimidating or mocking, she encouraged him to catch up, and from that point on they did everything together.

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