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Authors: Lucy Treloar

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BOOK: Salt Creek
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‘I am sure you will tell her when you see her so we can all find out,' Stanton said and leapt to his feet and stepped across the shards of china, shoving past me and flinging out of the door. Hugh finished his meat but with no pleasure or speed, only determination. He put his plate in the washbasin and with the broom swept the broken china into a heap, and scraped it into the dustpan.

‘Here,' I said, taking it from him. ‘I won't give Mama any more reason to be sad.'

Hugh stood dumb as an ox, while I swept and scolded. Then his throat began to work and he rushed past me through the door onto the veranda where he hung over its edge and was very ill. His shoulders heaved and his head sawed up and down. When he had finished he remained bowed
resting his forehead on his forearms as they lay upon the railing.

I went onto the veranda to see if there was anything I could do. Fred came out too. Tull was by the stable and a moment later Fred was climbing the short rise to see him.

Stanton stared at Hugh from the stairs. ‘Too rich,' he said. ‘That's all it is, Hugh. Don't go thinking there is any truth in those superstitions.'

‘Hugh?' I said.

Hugh rolled his head to one side and his face was grey and sweating so it did appear as if he might have been poisoned. He staggered to the settee and lay down with his arm across his eyes and there he stayed. Stanton came and stood over him. ‘You are all right, Hugh. As well as I be.'

I thought he did not look very well. Stanton then made a great show of his good health, drinking a cup of tea and playing a game of chess with Albert, which he did poorly. He lacked imagination and did not see the consequences of his actions, qualities that I suppose must be as advantageous in some situations as they are disadvantageous in others. I took Hugh a cup of tea and he sipped it tentatively and by lunch had recovered to the extent that he could contemplate some toast.

From having been so ill from the duck Hugh could not tolerate this particular duck or any duck at all again, but seeing that Stanton was unaffected, Albert and Papa and Stanton ate them, indeed Papa set about the task as his Christian duty, to prove that superstition held no sway with him. No harm came to any of them. But Tull told me later that it didn't matter if Papa ate them, so Papa hadn't proved anything except in his own mind. I do not care for ducks since they are so fatty and Addie refused to eat any thereafter, which I did not understand, and Fred would not out of a desire not to hurt Tull's feelings. I wondered how Tull explained this to himself but did not ask, merely observing that I never saw him eating one.

CHAPTER 8

The Coorong, January 1857

ONE DAY IN THE KITCHEN AT THE BEGINNING
of that year Tull told Fred a long story of an ancestor, Ngurunderi.

‘He's like God,' Fred said to Tully when he had finished.

‘Mr Finch says God is good,' Tull said.

‘So people say.'

‘Then Ngurunderi is not like God. He was a man. He made things, but because of what he
did
, not to
make
them, not like God. In what he did he created, but this was not what he meant to do, only what happened while he was chasing his wives. There are many other ancestors, Wyunggaree – another hunter. He made the lagoons with the skins of big kangaroos. He stretched them out. I don't know all the stories. There are many more, but you have only one?' He looked so pitying.

Tull grew fast through that summer and by autumn was taller than Hugh or Stanton or Fred and his wrists and ankles appeared from the shirt sleeves and breeches that had once been theirs. It gave him a gangling effect. Occasionally he was gone, for days or even weeks. We had grown used to his absences. I did not stop to wonder what might be happening in his life when he was not with us, or understand that he existed in two worlds.

Once we caught sight of him with some other natives when he was dressed as they were and we all paused to watch. He moved so easy along the track above the house but made no sign of recognition to us when they passed, and didn't look back as they walked away. In that moment he was something to us even if we were nothing to him. It made me feel small and temporary in that place and I saw on Papa's face how discomfited he was too.

‘Girls, inside now,' he said, rather harsh.

‘Why?' Addie said.

Papa looked about as if someone else might appear to explain the matter to her, but no one did and in the end he said, ‘It's Tull.'

‘We know that.'

Hugh slipped one hand inside his coat front as if he were Admiral Lord Nelson and pronouncing on matters of state. ‘We should tell them to stay away from the house. The girls shouldn't see.'

‘Yes, yes,' Papa said, a trifle impatient. ‘As I said already.'

‘I don't mind,' Addie said. ‘I'm sure nothing could surprise me these days.'

‘You should not see him so, Adelaide,' Papa said.

‘Why not? He is black, isn't he? Well, blackish, and they hardly wear a stitch,' Addie said. ‘We knew that before.'

Fred gave her a look to wither, and said, ‘You know the difference. He's one of us too.'

From long practice this glanced off her. She raised an insolent shoulder and said, ‘He's not one of me, Fred.'

‘Addie, stop it. He is almost a brother to you,' I said.

She became serious. ‘He's no brother of mine,' and although she came inside with me nothing I could say would induce her to leave the window until he had gone. It was as if she'd never seen him before.

Fred spent the most time with Tull, though I did see him for lessons and meals and around the run if they were not working at too great a distance. We conversed mainly about books and chess: more than I did to Stanton and Hugh, less than I did with Fred.

Tull liked to listen to Fred reading, though how it came about – Fred reading a passage before explaining it, Tull asking him to continue – I do not know. At such times I had a sense of Tull needing respite from the effort of learning so much and so fast. Of course, it might be that it was simpler to ask questions of Fred or anyone else around when words were spoken aloud.

That winter I began to notice how differently he saw almost everything compared to us. Mama might say that the colours of winter reminded her of the highlands of Scotland, and I might say that the sky was sapphire or that the washing lines were like cobwebs on a cold morning. Hearing these things perplexed him, as did so much else – the encumbrances of our clothing, our impractical hair, our heavy boots, the fences that we built – which he made apparent by his stillness or his incredulity and in other ways that I do not recall.

One day he asked why we had so few stories to tell and so few songs.

‘We have bible stories,' I said. ‘And novels. Of course we have stories and songs.'

‘Books. You don't speak them. Or sing them. Our stories are different.'

‘Tell me some of your stories then,' I said, but he would not. It was by chance that I heard him sing once or twice when he was about his work and I was tending the vegetable garden. It was not like our music and the words were not in English, yet he took pleasure in it I think.

He liked the Old Testament. I would have said it was his favourite part of the bible from the frequency with which he looked at it. I was not sure, though, whether pleasure and displeasure meant anything when words were before him. It was more as if there were a play on a chessboard that he could not read clearly. Fred's expression when drawing or thinking was something like it.

‘You like this story, don't you?' I said. He was reading Genesis again, on the veranda. We had grown so used to him that it no longer seemed strange for him to sit on our chairs and to eat from our plates.

Seeing that I had some time he asked me again about heaven and hell, sin, the Fall, the vastness of the world and its shape. ‘Is it about the white people?'

‘All people – about the beginning of everything.'

‘We have stories too, about the beginning of this land.'

‘Like the one you told Fred? The man chasing his wives?' I asked.

Tull nodded. ‘Is your story true?'

‘Most people think it is, that it happened this way,' I said. ‘But Papa believes it is a story that shows us how we all, people, became what we are, sinners who do wrong, that is, that they were tempted and chose their fate.' Tull still appeared confused and I did not know how to make temptation and the Fall clearer to one who had never even heard of God. ‘Is your story true?' I asked.

‘What is true?' Tull gave me one of his steady looks and moved his face by infinitesimal degrees, and how could I know what that meant?

Towards morning's end Mary often became fretful and Mama took her for a walk, leaving us to finish our work. With no one there to focus our attentions we fell to talking. Later I wondered whether we should not have encouraged familiarity, that it would have been better to keep some distance between Tull and us. But we were young and curious about him, as he was about us.

‘Tell us, what did you think of us when we first arrived?' Addie asked, leaning on the table towards Tull who sat opposite.

‘We saw people like you before, a long time ago.'

‘
You
did?'

‘I am not old enough to see the first people. We stayed away from them.' He gestured towards the track. ‘When my family saw white fellas the first time, the cattle frightened them. The sound was like thunder. Everyone screamed and ran away across the water.' He pointed towards the peninsula. ‘They hid there and waited. They thought the horses were their women.' He laughed at the thought and at Addie's expression.

‘Horses? That is ridiculous.' Her face flamed. ‘Why would they think that?'

‘They carried everything, like women.'

‘But if they knew white men were men … We know your men are men – why would they think that?'

‘They knew the men were men. They stole our women.'

‘Kidnapped,' I said, remembering that overheard conversation between Mama and Papa. ‘What did you think when you saw real women then?'

‘We thought you had no legs,' he said.

‘Legs? Of course we have legs.' And Addie leapt up, pulling her skirts to her knees.

‘Addie, for shame,' I said. ‘Have you lost your senses?'

‘Tull doesn't mind, do you?'

He tore his eyes from Addie's legs and their fallen stockings.

‘Tull, if you would go and see where Mama is – Mrs Finch, I mean – I should be grateful. Mr Finch too. Thank you.'

Tull didn't move. ‘When we saw you we were afraid,' he said.

‘Of us? We were children.'

‘Of Mr Finch.'

‘I tell you it was not Papa,' I said.

I daresay some would opine that Adelaide was not London, but the most provincial of outposts, and so I learned to see it years later. I had known nothing other than Adelaide and the Coorong and the road in between so that was no odds to me. When we were in Adelaide, ships had come through with news from home, and we might order any book or journal we cared for and after that it was a matter of waiting for the riches to arrive. And if the waiting took a very long time it whetted our anticipation and increased our enjoyment upon arrival. You might imagine the excitement that stirred, and for the next while all materials might be exchanged, since so many of us were known to each other. Naturalists' books might be had, or fashion almanacs, or novels or scientific journals or records of the voyages of discovery that were then circumnavigating the globe. It is a time without shape to me: a continuum of pleasurable incidents, at the end of which were the deaths of Louisa and Georgie and our departure.

In the Coorong we lost society, its benefits as well as its strictures, those things that we had not so much as thought of. They were the air we breathed. Even so, two great excitements broke the monotony of that winter. The telegraph line went through along the stock route. We rode up to watch the making of it and after the rough men had gone on their way all that was left were the poles, which were like so many stilts with their walkers departed, and their shadows, which lengthened and shortened as the earth turned, making patterns of shade and substance.

And in the winter Hugh and Stanton happened upon a group of travelling musicians on the road and invited them to stay for the night. We killed a calf and roasted it outside on a contraption the boys rigged up, and the sparks flew and the fat hissed beneath. They played their music on the veranda and we forgot ourselves in the shabby wonderment of their dandy striped waistcoats and bright trousers and the twang and thump of their instruments. Addie sang. (‘Ye should come along with us, little lady,' one of the men said.) We whirled around, and Tull did a dance, stamping his heels, which he taught us as best he could. He laughed at us.

It was hard to settle after they went on their way. If there were time I went for a ride or a walk on my own or with Addie, which Mama did not like.

‘Oh, Mama,' Addie said. ‘The lagoon path is not King William Street.'

‘Addie,' Mama said.

‘Sorry, Mama.'

‘Truly, Mama, there's no one about to think us fast,' I said. What point could there be to demureness and decorum and restraint when there was no one to witness them? She could not compel us, as she knew too. Still, we waited.

‘What of the blacks?'

‘They're not back from their winter camp that I've seen. In any case, if they've done nothing yet I think we're safe enough. Tull would tell us if not.'

BOOK: Salt Creek
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