The conversations at cur.., p.8
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       The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.8

           David Malouf
 
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  Virgilia’s idea of motherhood involved a good deal of petting and pampering, the chanting of nursery-songs and the organization of games in which Fergus learned pretty early to do what she required of him but when he went still, made a face, reddened, and Adair said solemnly, ‘He’s filling his pants,’ Virgilia looked aggrieved. She retired to a safe distance behind a table, and it was Adair who, efficiently and with no feeling of distaste – he was used to it – lay the child gently down, cleaned up his mess and changed him.

  Fergus during these ministrations lay very still and trusting under his hands, and from the corner of his eye Adair observed, not without a kind of humorous satisfaction, the look of mild disgust with which Virgilia followed his movements. But there was curiosity there and envy too. She must see, he thought, how these moments of intimacy pleased him. How completely, while he worked, Fergus was his.

  Occasionally, when this was too clear, or when he was too smugly absorbed in the little sing-song encouragements and endearments he used to get Fergus to turn this way and that, and which involved a whole secret language between them, she would grow scornful and mock him.

  ‘What a good little mother it is,’ she would sing. ‘Isn’t it a good little mother he is?’

  But he did not care. Quite the opposite, it pleased him. The fact was, he could scarcely remember a time now when Fergus had not been there, hanging on his hip or crawling in to cuddle against him in their nursery bed: like an extension of himself, a part of his nature he had not known existed till it appeared in this close, imperative form, this little other being with its own hard or yielding will, that insisted on being carted about or set on his shoulders to crow over the table-tops and the jaws of snappy pekinese, and who, after a time, took up all his affection, all the unused tenderness towards the world that made him open not only towards Fergus but to every sort of small and helpless creature, the kittens that appeared in a corner of the kitchen and which, for all his pleading, Paddy took off in a sack to be drowned, puppies, calves, the weak-kneed, new-born foals they went to the stables to see dragged, long legs first, out of mares laid trembling in the straw, and which from the beginning, he could not have said why, he associated with Fergus, who watched big-eyed from between his knees.

  He was changed, he felt, by this new presence, so much so that it was inevitable after a time that the world he moved in should also change, and most of all the one he and Virgilia had created.

  Till now there had been just the two of them, and for a while after Fergus began to come to the Park, to play on the floor of the Schoolroom while they did their lessons, or hug Adair’s knee, they remained two. Only when Virgilia began to involve Fergus in the games she devised did their world open to include the boy as more than an acceptable nuisance.

  He provided his own little centre of interest, had his own way of going about things and of finding what it was in the world that shone out and demanded to be seen – things they had not noticed till he touched them and took them up; and always as if their shape and colour were somehow already known to him; with the joy of recovery, as if his lighting upon them were a reassurance to him that he was in a world that was familiar. They were things he had been homesick for – that is what Adair felt. ‘This,’ he would say, waddling up to present them with a little marbled pebble. ‘Pebble,’ Virgilia would tell him. ‘Yes,’ he would say very solemnly, ‘this.’

  None of it was surprising to Adair, who had grown up with the belief, picked up from the girls in the kitchen, that he was a fairy child, who had to be humoured if he was not to forsake them and slip away. In fact he no longer believed that. It was just kitchen talk, old superstition. But some of the strangeness they had attributed to the child still lingered in the older boy’s vision of him. That Fergus ‘knew things’ was only to be expected.

  ‘Why,’ Virgilia demanded. ‘Why should he? What sort of things?’

  Adair could not answer. ‘You’ll see,’ he told her.

  Meanwhile, just as she had done earlier with Adair, she taught the child to read. They began to take their lessons together, and afterwards, in the strange half-light of winter afternoons, would set off, Fergus dragging behind to peer at wonders they already knew, on expeditions into the abandoned rooms of the East Wing, where darker squares and rectangles on the faded wallpaper showed where landscapes and ghostly portraits had once shone. Dust lay thick on all the floors, cobwebs drooped from the ceiling and crammed the cupboards, which, when they tore the grey swags aside, revealed mops and buckets but also spinning wheels, a set of bowls that they sent cannoning into the walls, fishing-canes, great crinolines that the moths had reduced to bell-shapes of a dusty fabric you could poke a finger through, producing a trickle of grey mould that set them atchooing and blessing one another, portmanteaux and travelling-trunks from the Grand Tour, leather straps studded with horse-brasses, St Brighid’s crosses. They wrote their names in the dust in their best copperplate, hauled out the trunks and found candlesticks and embroidered vestments in one, in another Alpine flowers and a little white bread-roll that looked fresh enough but had dried and was hard as stone.

  They carried the fishing-canes down to the lake. The two boys took off their boots and stockings and waded in the slimy green water while fishlings in a burst of silver bubbles darted round their calves. Virgilia, bare-legged, with her skirt daintily lifted and a straw hat perched atop her curls, trailed through the shallows along the shore.

  More and more they made up a company of their own. Isolated from all but their own interests, there grew up between them an intimacy of three that had its own changing history, its own moods and uneasy calms, its rivalries, struggles for supremacy, unstable resolutions. Its own language too, in which thoughts passed from one to another so easily that it scarcely mattered which of the three had given shape to a new thought or produced the code word that from now on would be a new element in their speech. A joke might be the beginning of it, or a new name for some object that had previously been designated by common syllables and only now revealed the special colour and glow that would make it part of their private world.

  Virgilia remained the prime mover. Adair had long ago, and quite willingly, yielded authority to her. But Fergus, young as he was, could not so easily be controlled. He did not mean to deny her. It was simply that he had no idea what she wanted of him, it was not in his nature to be contained. When he fell into one of his freaks as she called it, she took it personally and protested, mildly at first. ‘Fergus,’ she would warn him, ‘you’re wool-gathering.’ But he had no control over these moods. Almost unconscious of the extent to which he had moved away into a dimension of himself where he was absent in all but the flesh, he would, in a dreamy fashion, push her hand away. ‘Leave me,’ he would tell her. But she could not. When urgings and tugs failed to work she would begin to deliver little punches to his upper arm that became increasingly vehement, till he either came out of himself or ran away crying and calling her names learned from the stableboys that left her white-faced with affront.

  Adair never felt closer to her than in these moments when all her attention was on Fergus and the whole of her intense being was set on breaking the boy, on winning him back. What touched him was the loss of all restraint in her, and when she was defeated, as she mostly was, the stricken look that drained her cheeks so completely of colour that you could see even the palest freckle on her skin, and under its fineness, a thing that never failed to astonish him, the blue, more intense than any sky-colour, of her veins. In being powerless she became transparent. What he loved in her, and all the more because she so rarely revealed it, was her vulnerability. It was here, he believed, that his advantage lay. She would see at last, she must, that her only peace, her only safety, was in him.

  For by now they were no longer children.

  There had been a time, not so long back, when she had suddenly leapt ahead of him. ‘Don’t,’ she had told him when he tried to draw her into an old game of rough-and-tumble that would once have had
her struggling fiercely beside them. He was hurt that if he touched her now she pulled away, offended that when he tried to force her she called him silly and stalked off.

  ‘Oh leave her,’ Fergus told him, ‘if she doesn’t want to play. We don’t need her.’ But it was no consolation to be paired in her eyes with a nine-year-old.

  He stood and watched her go, no longer happy in the world Fergus offered but unable to follow. He could not grasp what had happened. Then the time came when he could and it was Fergus who was left. Almost from one day to the next they were in accord again, he and Virgilia, but in a way that was new and afforded him the keenest satisfaction, though there was a sense of mystery in it too that left him light-headed and even, at times, fearful; but it was a pleasurable fear.

  Under the influence of all this he felt a new tenderness for himself. For his own body, first of all, its combination of strength and weakness, the uneasy power it contained, and at every moment of its contact with the world, its capacity for hurt; but then for the same quality, which seemed so obvious to him now, in others – Mama Aimée, Paddy, Virgilia. Most of all, Virgilia. Did she know how much she was at risk? He trembled when he thought of it. She was so reckless. Did she know how often she was playing in an area that neither of them had yet understood? In so much uncertainty, the one thing he knew for certain was that there had opened up around him, even as he began to feel his power, an immensity of the unknown, of what might never be known, that was a kind of terror to him, but to acknowledge the terror, he thought, was to get some measure of it and was a way to strength.

  In the meantime the world had come alive for him with a new immediacy. He felt drugged at one moment with the drench and dazzle of things, and was charged the next with an energy that was not entirely his own.

  One day when he had abandoned the others to be on his own, he found himself in the new oak-grove Eamon Fitzgibbon had planted at the edge of the farm.

  It was early spring. The young trees, which were as yet only twenty feet tall, were misted with green, but it was a greenness, as the pale sun caught it, that was more like a trick of the light than fleshy foliage.

  What had carried him here, or so he had thought, was a mood, the need to catch up for a moment with his own tumultuous feelings. But when he stepped in among them he realized that the trees too were in a state of disturbance. Midges swarmed in their shade. The heat that had begun to gather, and which he felt as a dampness at the base of his spine, had set off an electric quivering in the air. It was, he saw now, the beginnings of a storm. How odd, he thought, when he looked up at the sky. There was no sign of a cloud there, only the spasms of a distant restlessness. Yet his body had felt the change, and in a moment he had confirmation of it from a different source.

  In the crooked little avenues of an oak-trunk ants were swarming. They too had scented it. Some message had run from one to another of them, and now, in hundreds, which would soon be thousands, they were leaving their holes before the flood and excitedly climbing.

  Looking in on their tiny lives, on bodies that in such a minute space could contain so much knowledge, will, all the co-ordination and discipline of an army, he had an apprehension of how crowded and complex his own body was, which did not seem at all lumpish or out of scale but on the contrary very finely adjusted, subtly attuned to everything that was happening here. The air crackled. All his senses were alert.

  He should get out in the open, that is what he thought. No point in being struck. He plunged through bracken towards the open field, which was newly ploughed, the raw clods shining from the share, and there it was far off on the skyline, a cloud no bigger than his fist, but black as smoke and spreading, and above it lightning tremors, flash on flash.

  He might have gone in then. There was still time to run for shelter. But he did not. He stood with his hands raised, rejoicing, when they came, in the first big splashes that wet his cheeks and darkened his shirt. Then, almost immediately, there was such a downrush of water that he might have been beaten flat into the earth. He was drenched – hair, clothes, skin – and staggering. The field turned to mud, then to liquid mud, he could barely keep upright in it. He heard his name called, and when he turned towards the source of it, saw emerging out of the thunderous light, as if it had somehow come to life from cold marble, what he took to be one of the statues in Eamon Fitzgibbon’s gallery, a nereid that for a good while now he had guiltily stopped to contemplate and had gathered at last into the store of images he kept at the back of his head, her garments so liquefied and transparent that you saw through them the shape of her limbs and the small risen breasts, though the face was blunted and featureless like the face in a dream.

  It was Virgilia, who had come out looking for him. She too was soaked, her garments liquefied, revealing the small risen breasts. She came up to him, laughing, reached for his hand, and clasped it as if she might otherwise have slipped and drowned. ‘What are you doing?’ she shouted.

  He shook his head. For explanation he raised her hand and set it on his breast, as if it was there she would find her answer: in the flesh under his clinging shirt, in the clamouring of his heart. He felt freed by this new element they were in. To be drenched like this was a kind of nakedness. He lifted her hand to his mouth, as he never could have done if they had been in the presence of furniture. She did not object. When he lowered it, he let his head tilt forward and his lips found the softness of her neck. He was entirely without experience. Each of these actions was for itself. He did not think of them as leading anywhere.

  The rain continued to hold them. As long as it lasted it was as if they had at last stepped outside the permitted and ordinary. But after a little her hand came up to his chest and pushed him off. He saw then that the rain was easing. They were in clear outline again and facing one another. But she was smiling.

  They walked away hand in hand, slipping and sinking in the muddy furrows, hauling one another out. But what pleased her, he discovered after a time, was the belief that he had changed, had broken through into some part of himself where he was reckless. But it wasn’t that. He had from beginning to end been following his body – that was all; doing what it wanted, what it told him to do. When he wandered away from them and sought the solitude of the oak-grove. When he stood waiting in the field for the rain to fall. When he called her to him and she had revealed herself and allowed him to touch her. She did not know it yet but he could do these things. This was just the beginning. He was patient. He would last.

  In time Fergus too came into his growth. Too early, it seemed. He shot up so fast that there was half a year when he appeared to have outrun his strength. He had dizzy spells, all his clothes were too small for him, he had the awkward, unsteady look of a foal. At not quite thirteen, he was already a good head taller than either of them, with down on his lip and a new wildness in all his movements, though there were times still when he could be intimidatingly self-possessed. They felt he had not only caught up but surpassed them. Or the awakening, in his case, had been into a different order of beings. Of centaurs, Adair thought, since what the boy more and more resembled, with his long features and increasingly heavy limbs, was a kind of composite creature, half boy, half horse, as if Mama Aimée had found his image in a dream in which her passion for horses had worked deep in her womb to create this perfect union: a child so deeply attuned to the nature and being of horses that his body, at its time of change, had taken a unique course.

  There was also the matter of his ghosts.

  They had been taken often enough, on Sundays after Mass, to visit the little mounds at the end of the Walk, each stone with its familiar name and date; and Adair, who so far as he knew had no brother or sister of his own, had wondered what Fergus made of these small uninsistent sharers of his name. To be so singled out for survival, for life! To have put into your hands, and so firmly, the gift those others had let fall. Did this explain, perhaps, the sense he gave at times, and had always given, of being drawn away towards the margin of himself?<
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  There was something else, Adair saw, that had shaped the boy, had shaped both of them.

  Each Thursday now a dancing-master came to the Park to drill them in the niceties of the allemande and the quadrille. In one of those little insights his new self-consciousness afforded him he caught a vision of himself, of Fergus too, through the eyes of the slim-wristed straight-backed manikin with the fiddle tucked under his chin, who shook his head, cast his eyes up, and tapped with his bow for them to stop, go back to the spot he had marked on the floor and start again.

  They were clodhoppers. That is what he saw. There was nothing in them of refinement or gentility. Their speech half the time was what they had picked up from Paddy and the grooms. They had none of the poise that had come to Virgilia as by second nature.

  This had not concerned him till now because he had taken it as being required only of girls, of the sort of little lady Virgilia was bound to become because of the grandeur of the Park and the old-fashioned style that for all Eamon Fitzgibbon’s Jacobin notions was preserved there. He saw now that the real cause was Ellersley, and though he burned with shame on his own part, he was also ashamed of what was revealed of the household, whose irregular life they had taken for granted, he and Fergus, and whose darker side was a secret that bound them in a silence they kept even with one another; but most of all, of what it revealed of the woman to whose kindness he owed his only place in the world.

  He had always been fastidious. Now, at fifteen, he began to develop those habits of watchfulness and severe restraint that had always perhaps been the mark of his character but which the carelessness of life at Ellersley had obscured. He set himself apart from the disorder that surrounded him there, the crises, the scenes, but also, and painfully as the differences between them grew plainer, from Fergus.

  As the little master of Ellersley Fergus was allowed to do pretty much as he pleased. In the early days he had often been as dirty when they set off for the Park as the children they passed on the way, who stood bare-legged and big-eyed to watch them go by in the cart, and he was not much less careless even now when it came to clean shirts and the dirt under his nails.

 
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