The conversations at cur.., p.9
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       The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.9

           David Malouf
 
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  It was not in his nature to be resentful of the fact that Mama Aimée ignored and neglected him, and that his father, though he complained bitterly enough about how unruly the boy was, and what an impression he made of a half-tamed savage when he was dragged in to be shown off to company, did nothing to see that he was better looked after or in any way disciplined.

  Mama Aimée, from being scared at first, in her superstitious way, that if she showed too much affection for the child he would be snatched away, had drifted into a kind of indifference that was part habit and part a retreat from the world in general, for she had begun more and more these days to retire to her room, sometimes not emerging even for supper. It was also a response to Fergus himself, to some quality in him that scared her and which she did not want to face. She complained to Adair that she never saw the boy, that he deliberately avoided her, but the moment he appeared she was filled with a shrill impatience with everything he did, the way he walked and sat and stood, that puzzled Adair and left Fergus, who burned with shame to have the servants hear it, slack-shouldered and surly while she railed at him.

  Adair too began to avoid her. She would waylay him on the stairs, a fearful apparition, since she only did it when she was in a ‘condition’. Gaunt and grey, and half a head taller than he was, she would clasp him to her and weep. But he was no longer afraid of her outbursts, only embarrassed and obscurely ashamed. He knew now where the line lay between her emotions and his own.

  ‘You avoid me,’ she accused. ‘You know how I need you, you’re the only one now I can rely on, and you deliberately keep out of my way.’

  ‘No,’ he would say, shifting from foot to foot in an agony of distress.

  ‘Look at me,’ she would cry. ‘Oh Michael, how can you be so cruel, how can you?’

  ‘I don’t mean to be cruel,’ he would say, his lip trembling, and he would reach out and put his arms around her in the old way, but the fierceness with which she clung to him was frightful.

  After a moment, abashed perhaps by a sudden sense of herself, she would release him, eyes closed, her hand patting at her unkempt hair. ‘Where’s Fergus?’ she would ask, but in an abstracted way that worried and confused him. ‘I never see him. Get him to come and see me – no, not now. In half an hour when I’ve had time to dress.’

  She looked at Adair; reached out, touched his face.

  ‘Poor Michael,’ she said tenderly, ‘I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t do this to you. But you’ll forgive me, I know you will.’

  He stood shaking his head. He was trying not to let her see how he pitied her, but how unnerved he was too by the disorder she represented, the pressure she put upon him. She was always trying to enlist him in some conspiracy against Fergus, whom she accused now of deliberately thwarting her, of trying to humiliate her in front of the neighbours and put her in the wrong with his father.

  In fact none of this was true. Fergus acted only to suit himself. Selfishly perhaps, but innocently. He was entirely without guile. But when Adair told her this she was furious.

  ‘You’re like all the rest – Paddy, all of them – you take his part against me. He pulls the wool over your eyes just as he does the others – you most of all, because he knows you will never think ill of him. He’s a demon. He isn’t my child, I’ve always known that. He was sent to torment me. – No Michael, don’t go, don’t turn away.’

  ‘My mother’s mad, don’t you know that?’

  Adair was shocked by the matter-of-factness with which Fergus could say this, the detachment it suggested in one so young. He was twelve years old.

  ‘It’s a shame and I’m sorry, but I don’t mind it so much. I don’t like to see her, that’s all. I’m sorry for her, but I don’t want to see her. You should keep away from her too, Mickey.’

  Their eyes met and it was Adair who first dropped his gaze.

  ‘But it’s all right,’ he added after a moment, ‘if you feel you can’t. I know she depends on you, and I know you don’t take sides against me.’

  Occasionally, when she was in one of her sociable phases, she would invite some of the better class of neighbours, in the hope that he and Fergus might make friends among the children and get invited to dances and Christmas parties. They went into Oughterard to be measured by Mr Flynn the tailor. She ordered patent-leather dancing-pumps and smart waistcoats and gloves to make them presentable, and the sitting-room was cleared of its furniture and rugs and little gilt-legged chairs were arranged around the walls. Preparations were made in the kitchen for a buffet of pies and sweet jellies and cakes.

  But they were painful occasions. Mama Aimée, though she behaved with unfailing courtesy even to the most tiresome of her guests, was in a highly nervous state, afraid that the band she had hired, which consisted of fiddlers who were more often to be heard at county fairs, would play badly and that the more fashionable young people would reject the flavours Mrs Upshaw had decided on for the jellies; or that their two footmen, who were raw and inexperienced youths, would not show to advantage in their livery. When the younger boys went sliding over the floor in improvised races, she got flustered and did not know whether to intervene or simply let them be. Only when the whole company had taken the floor in a mazurka or quadrille did she feel quite safe and settle sufficiently to enjoy the colour, the music, the fresh faces, and the ease with which Fergus, in spite of his coltish six-feet, which made him tower over the other children his age, performed his chassés en avant, chassés en arrière and glissade as the dancing-master had taught them.

  He was wonderfully high-spirited and made a great impression, even on the grown-ups. But there it ended. The boys of his own age were scared by his wildness, and the girls, who were attracted by it, even some of the older ones, who had heard of it from their brothers, did not interest him.

  ‘I’m ashamed of you,’ Mama Aimée told him bitterly when the coats and shawls and overshoes had been redeemed from the cloakroom Paddy had organized at the bottom of the stairs and the noise of farewells had quietened, the last carriages rolled off, and they were settled for a moment in the first-floor sitting-room. ‘I doubt the McCafferties will come here again, you were so rude to them.’

  Fergus, still flushed and excited, was sprawled on a sofa, his long legs thrust out before him.

  She regarded him over the rim of her teacup. Everything about him, Adair saw, was unacceptable to her. But why? The glow of sweat on his downy upper lip, his hair, which was damp and had come loose from its knot, his big hands, the space he took up with his long legs. It was as if the glow he gave off was a personal affront to her, the release of so much hot energy into the world, so much untameable will, an indiscretion on her part for which she could not forgive herself.

  The boy felt her displeasure and waited, tense, undefiant, for the storm to break. But for once she could find no particular on which to attack him. Frowning, she rose, set her cup down, and stalked off. A little smile of satisfaction came to his lips as he watched her go.

  But a moment later he sank deeper into the sofa, thrust his legs out further across the gleaming parquet, and covered his eyes.

  They did not make friends among the local families. They did get invited to parties and dances but as often as not failed to go, either because they had grown out of last year’s jacket or dancing-shoes and Mama Aimée had neglected to order new ones, or because at the last moment the carriage was not ready, or she was out of sorts and there was no one else to send with them; or because she had seen, Adair suspected, that Fergus wanted to go and had manufactured these excuses to prevent it. Fergus did not complain of these minor persecutions any more than he had complained earlier of her neglect, and put on such a show of easy indifference that even Virgilia, who was sharp, did not see how he had been hurt.

  It was at this time that Adair began to see that Virgilia’s feeling for Fergus was no longer one of those shifting and inconsequential alliances, based on a word or a whim or the many little dissatisfactions and bursts of sympathy that till now ha
d characterized the movement of emotion between them.

  One afternoon, he and Fergus had been playing shuttlecock while Virgilia, book in hand, looked on. They had taken their shirts off in the heat, and when the game was over, used them to dry off. Stretched out beside her in the grass, which was cooling on the skin, they slept.

  Waking, he looked up from where he had thrown his forearm across his eyes to keep off the sun.

  Virgilia, her knees drawn up under her skirt, had laid her book aside and was staring with a dreamlike fixity at the muscles of Fergus’s throat, which tensed, went lax, then tensed again, as with his limbs flung out and his bare chest lightly heaving, he slept. Her lips were parted. Her teeth glistened. She looked, Adair thought, as if she were drugged.

  Desire, that is what he saw. But also that desire was a part of her nature. He had consoled himself till now with the belief that it was not, or that she had not yet discovered it; and for no other reason than that he desired her and she had shown no response.

  As for Fergus, he seemed entirely unaware. He watched him, watched them both – he had discovered a new talent in himself, though he took no pride in it, that of the spy; but was convinced after a time that his first impression was a right one. Fergus knew nothing of the change in Virgilia’s feelings. Adair was angry with him now on new grounds. For the innocence, the indifference it might be, that allowed him to hurt her and remain blithely unconscious of it.

  He kept all this to himself, and it was typical of Fergus, he thought, when the boy at last challenged him, that he should be so sensitive to his feelings when he was so oblivious to hers.

  ‘What is it, Mickey?’ he demanded in his forthright way. ‘You’re angry with me, I know you are. But why? What have I done?’

  ‘I’m not angry,’ Adair told him.

  Fergus turned away.

  ‘Now,’ Adair said, ‘you are angry with me.’

  ‘Yes I am, of course I am. Because you feel something and you deny it. Why should you lie? Is it Virgilia?’

  ‘Perhaps.’

  ‘You don’t have to fear that, Mickey. I know what you feel for her. Do you think I would do anything to hurt you?’

  ‘No, I know you wouldn’t. But you hurt her.’

  ‘Virgilia? What do you mean? How do I hurt her? I’m the same as I ever was.’

  ‘But she is not.’

  Fergus looked away and shook his head.

  They were making their way to the Park across-country, through a patch of dank wood thick with sycamore and whitethorn that freighted the air with its suffocating sweetness, and foxgloves in purple clumps. In spring you could find Irish orchids here, if you knew where to look, and in autumn mushrooms. But now it was June. The air was hot and close. They sweated, their shirts sticking to their backs and the flies swarming.

  They came out into waist-high meadowsweet and Fergus strode ahead, slashing at the flowerheads left and right with a hazel-switch. There was nothing more he would say. He would, as he always did, take this into himself, but they would not speak of it again.

  Adair had always understood that the position he occupied in Mama Aimée’s household, however completely he was accepted and however fond they might be of him, made his prospects very different from those that Fergus could look forward to. One day he would have to leave the security of Ellersley and strike out on his own. That was the way his future lay. He had always known this and had thought Fergus knew it too, though they had never discussed the thing. Now, at nearly seventeen, he thought they must.

  ‘What do you mean?’ Fergus demanded. ‘What are you telling me?’

  They were camping out, as they often did on early summer nights, on the slopes of Ben Breen. A fire of twigs and heather made a blaze between stones.

  They had ridden up here through fields of bog-asphodel with their spires of star-shaped, spiky blossom, past flocks of sheep that wandered the unenclosed uplands, leaving the gorse hung with wisps of dirty wool like old man’s beard. Their horses, pale shadows in the moonlight, were set loose now, cropping the short grass between sheets of stone. They lifted their heads as if they smelled something, a ghost or the scent on the air of a fox. ‘Shh there,’ Fergus whispered, and at the sound of his voice they settled. In the easy intimacy of the moment Adair had spoken out.

  ‘I mean,’ he said, trying to make it sound undramatic – he was shocked by the violence of Fergus’s response – ‘that I may have to go away very soon now. I can’t live off Mama Aimée all my life. I have to make my own way in the world. You will inherit Ellersley –’

  ‘And you think I’d send you away?’

  The boy’s honour was touched, or some fear, which hurt him, that Adair might doubt his affection. He was at an age of half-childhood, half-manhood where everything stirred him. The tautness of his shoulders in the firelight made him seem painfully thin.

  ‘I know you wouldn’t, I don’t say that. But my life is to be different from yours. My circumstances are different – don’t you know that?’ He threw a fistful of twigs into the fire and they caught and crackled into flame. The heat that hit his face hid the emotion he felt. ‘I don’t mean tomorrow, but one day, in a little time now, I must go. And because I know I must I have begun to look forward to it.’

  Fergus gave him a hard look, then frowned and turned away.

  Adair was surprised. Didn’t he know all this? In the close sharing of so much that was secret but silent between them hadn’t the boy understood that what made life so hard for him, his uneasy place in the world, could not be changed by affection, even his affection, or the avowal that he would never be anything less than a dear older brother and the one person in the world he could not do without.

  He saw how distressed Fergus was and was sorry. He hated to see him hurt. Most of all, he thought, it was a kind of shame; at having failed to see what ought to have been obvious, and for the doubt it might cast on the depth of his nature or his love.

  ‘But it’s not right,’ he said simply.

  ‘It’s the way it is,’ Adair told him. ‘It’s no fault of yours – or mine either. It’s the way the world is.’

  ‘I’d have made the world very different, if I’d had the making of it. I’ll give you half of whatever it is – all if you’ll take it. Then you can stay.’

  ‘You would, I know you would, but my life is – Every man’s life is his own, that’s what I believe – Kismet. I have to make what I can of it. And you know, it isn’t as easy as that, you can’t just give things away.’

  ‘Why can’t I?’

  ‘Because that’s the life you’ve been given.’

  ‘I’m not free – is that what you mean? We’re not free.’ He shook his head. ‘That’s not what Eamon Fitzgibbon tells us.’

  ‘No, it’s not. But I’m not sure I believe him. Anyway, you couldn’t because it’s not the way things are done.’

  ‘Then we should change them. Shouldn’t we?’

  ‘You would,’ he said affectionately, and it was true. He would. That was his style.

  ‘What you really mean is you wouldn’t accept.’

  ‘That too, I couldn’t. Not because I think you wouldn’t do it gladly, I know you would, but because it’s already settled in my mind. I mean to hire myself out as a soldier. That’s the honourable Irish thing to do.’

  ‘Then I’ll go with you.’

  He must have caught, Adair thought, the little movement with which he looked away.

  ‘Do you really think,’ he flashed out, ‘that I mean to stay here and sit playing whist all night, and starve my tenants, and be a fat do-nothing like my father –’

  ‘You shouldn’t speak like that of –’

  ‘Shouldn’t? Why is it always should and shouldn’t with you, Mickey? I don’t think that way. Neither does Virgilia.’

  The barb shot home. Adair winced but would not let it pass.

  ‘Because you do not have to, you and Virgilia. I do. It’s what I’ve been trying to make you see. Our circumstances’ –
he went back to the word because he found a kind of pleasure in its cruel objectivity – ‘are different. It doesn’t mean we are not close, and fond of one another. We are, you know it. But I have to think about such things. Or it’s my nature – I suppose it is.’

  Suddenly Fergus burst into tears.

  ‘I don’t know why you are saying these things,’ he said fiercely. Adair was shocked. He hadn’t expected this.

  Fergus got up and crossed quickly to where his horse stood and put his arms around the big bay’s neck.

  It was a moment Adair would return to again and again, looking up through the waves of heat from the fire to the quivering image that haunted him still of Fergus, his arms round the horse’s neck, leaning his brow for comfort against the huge shadowy creature that turned its head in sympathy and tried to nuzzle his cheek.

  But his own heart for the moment was hardened. Let him accept the conditions of his life, he thought. I have accepted mine.

  There was an element of deliberate cruelty in it, that was the reflection, he saw, of a bitterness in him that he had failed, for all his philosophy, to suppress. But it was not Fergus he had meant to punish.

  The image burned in him still, and clearer now for having been sharpened in memory by the times he had gone back to conjure it; no longer with the heat of the fire to make it shift and waver in the light, so that boy and horse, all airy illusion, might have been suspended a foot above the earth, but grounded at last in a real weight of bone, and in a sorrow he felt with all the heaviness of his regret that the moment should stand so clearly as the end of something. Do not turn, he found himself saying, as if he could arrest the moment and stop time from moving on.

  But the boy had turned, calm again, and walked slowly to the fire, and sat, and something new had begun between them.

 
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