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Authors: Lucy Treloar

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BOOK: Salt Creek
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Addie shrieked – ‘Don't, Tully' – and I drew a sharp breath. He was so lifelike in enacting death. Everything about it was clear, even the diameter of the rope. His eyes had rolled around, very white.

Tull let go the rope and loosened the noose and slipped his head out and dropped the ghost rope. We waited for the sound of it reaching the floor but it never came.

‘Papa would never do that,' I said. ‘What are you thinking of? If you are so worried about him, why are here?'

‘I waited for a long time, till I was sure. He never did me harm.'

‘Of course he wouldn't harm you. He's a dear old thing,' Addie said. ‘Anyway, he wasn't here before.'

‘Not here,' Tull said. ‘A long way that way,' and pointed down the lagoon.

‘Hanged,' I said to Tull. ‘Whoever did it and those who helped must have had a reason. People do not get hanged for nothing. Had the blacks attacked this man with the hat?' I said.

Tull said nothing, but stood in the doorway keeping an eye on Papa and the troopers while I resumed clattering about, clearing the books away, flinging the cold tea off the veranda, banging the kettle on to boil, wondering at him sitting there thinking Papa a murderer and accepting our charity. Then for no reason that I could see he left where he was and went in a quiet shadowy sort of way through the heart of the house and the front door and south along the lagoon path away from Papa and the troopers who were coming down the hill towards us. It was as if he were being propelled by them, their paces being so similar.

Papa invited the troopers inside. They had come about Mrs Robinson from the Travellers Rest, whose husband had gone missing, leaving her ‘in high hysterics' Sergeant Wells said, tipping his tea neatly into his saucer to cool before drinking it, his magnificent whiskers resting upon its rim like a hearth-rug. They wondered if we'd seen him, which we had not. We had no news at all, but we could not bear to let these new faces and unfamiliar voices depart. We crowded about the dining table to hear, Fred and Albert leaning against the dresser.

‘More tea?' Mama said more than once, and Addie bestirred herself to carry around a plate of biscuits. But eventually they had to leave. They had miles further to ride. And all we could do was wonder what might have befallen Mr Robinson for the next while.

Papa was curious to see what use could be made of the peninsula, as it was part of our land. Two weeks later he and the boys drove a small herd of cows down the lagoon and crossed them to the peninsula, taking them north again until they were opposite our house. They stopped at the Travellers Rest on their return and there learned that Mr Robinson, his throat slit, had been found in a swamp miles from the inn by Policeman Jack, a native. I hated to think of it.

‘Poor Mrs Robinson,' Mama said. ‘Would a native have done it?'

Papa just shook his head. ‘A native would stab you or spear you. I would not think they would cut a man's throat. I heard talk of the coach driver who had been with him. He says they were out hunting. But why would he do it? He's gone, in any case.'

‘Was it he then?'

‘Why would he? And where's the proof? I would call it common sense to leave in the circumstances. The Celestials perhaps. But they keep to themselves.'

The Celestials came from China, and since they were taxed for landing in Melbourne, they docked in Adelaide and walked down the coast to the goldfields. Papa was the only one of us lucky enough to have seen them. They had built a few wells along the stock route, none on our run: ‘a useful service to all passers-by,' Papa said.

We couldn't tell Tull that he had nothing to fear, or pass on the news that the troopers had brought. As it turned out, he was gone again for the winter. Word came that Mr Robinson's death had been ruled a suicide, but that didn't stop Mama fretting or the rest of us staying closer to home than usual. Any death must be a reminder of one's mortality. We felt safer bunched together, as animals do when pursued.

CHAPTER 7

Chichester, 1867

THE WONDER IN OUR FIRST
YEARS
in Chichester was the rebuilding of the cathedral spire, which had
fallen a year or two before my arrival there. That something that had stood for more
than seven hundred years could fall so quick was miraculous to me, in the sense that
it could scarcely be comprehended.

No one was killed, the event having been expected and the area cleared, which many called a blessing and a sign from God that it was not punishment that was intended. I held my counsel on that point for I had seen enough of people to know that they can persuade themselves of anything at all regardless of the merits or justice of a thing. It was the predictability of the fall that saved people, not justice, and where there is no justice I do not find the hand or the presence of God.

I had never before seen a cathedral and this one appeared caught between two states of existence: construction and decay. All around it heaps of stone were piled up waiting to be restored to their proper place. People were accustomed to the sight, though Mrs Wickens said it had not always been so. ‘It was like it had had its head cut off, Madam.' She put a hand to her stomach. ‘If a cathedral can fall, anythin' might happen. And I saw it fall, mind, I felt it in my feet.'

I dreamt of the collapse once or twice: the air and ground thunderous and the cathedral spire subsiding as the mast of a sinking ship might be swallowed by heaving sea, and people swarming in and out of the black spaces of its blasted doorways, as frenzied as ants.

Some things collapse slow, and cannot always be rebuilt, and even if a thing can be remade it will never be as it was. I heard the rebuilding of the cathedral called an abomination, a view that was not generally held. People were glad of it; they loved it more tenderly, I think, seeing its fragility. They knew what might befall even something so vast and old.

Joss and I came to know those involved: the workers, the architect, the engineer and the benefactors, these last glossy with wealth and importance. The calculations, at least, I could discuss sensibly. I had not known that buildings were so mathematical. People are not of course, which is a pity. The stress points are particular to an individual, and are not always visible to those around. A person might appear to be complete and be invisibly crumbling, or might appear to be falling apart and yet persist despite all expectation. Connections between people are not so different.

Observing the work on the cathedral was Joss's favourite entertainment. It put me in mind of the duck that Fred and Albert left to rot once as a scientific study after the visit from the troopers, the ants mining it for life, and of a story that Tull once told of ant people swarming across the land.

The Coorong, July 1856

Winter began in earnest, worse than the last. Thick rain and squall came from the ocean across the peninsula and the sand hills were no more than a ripple in their path. At first we were cosy within, the saturated sky and clouds and air and ground outside something to endure. Soon enough it began to find out the house's true deficiencies, the porosity that its roof of shabby thatch had developed since the spring, and we placed bowls about to catch the drips and squeezed into the dining room. It was as warm as it could be with its various draughts; better at any rate than the veranda which, deep as it was, was wet to the door. Drying clothes steamed on racks over the stove and over the backs of chairs, their vapours misting the windows and obscuring the view until someone went over and smeared the steam and water aside to peer out. But it was just water outside too, veils slipping in the air and flopping about in the lagoon. The peninsula was a smudge.

Once, maddened with confinement, I went walking in that weather and saw an old man throwing on his possum cloak, hands stretching it out to either side so it was a rich curtain he stood against and he swept his arms in, one and the other, the slow beats of huge wings. I tried it with my shawl but it was nothing that would hold me up and keep me warm. It was wet in an instant.

Fred and I took turns milking the house cows. They gave only a little milk at this time of year. The other cows were let loose. They became wary, staring at us with the eyes of scarce-remembered obedience if we chanced upon them, or sheering away into the bush on their way to becoming part of it. Sometimes they became stranded between soaks and the boys would splash towards them or circle from behind with windmill arms and the half-broke shouts of burgeoning manhood, and Skipper wild with the excitement of pursuit charged at them. Lacking any instinct for self-preservation, they enmired themselves at the edges of soaks and thrashed themselves deeper – rolling their eyes and bellowing until, exhausted, they slumped and settled and waited for death. Papa and the boys dug them loose and pulled them free by degrees and encouragement and they lumbered away in a state of bovine jubilance until hunger restored them to unthinking life. There were times when there was the sign of a great struggle: gouged and churned mud. We thought that they had broken free is all, that they had been fortunate or strong.

Papa was out each day, sometimes overnight with Hugh and Stanton. They found a gap burned in a fence, which they had to repair before travelling further afield to see if stock had strayed beyond our boundaries. After a night curled about a campfire they came across a native encampment that they hadn't seen before. They were quiet when they returned, even Stanton, and sat so close to the heat that the steam lifted from them.

Papa said: ‘I have not seen them so ill this far south before. It was as if they had no fight in them. It wasn't only their bodies that had sickened, but their spirits also. Chills and fevers for the most part. And their stores run low. We gave them what we had.'

‘All of it?' Mama said.

‘All. We told him not to. They'll die anyway,' Stanton said.

‘Yes, why slow what is inevitable?' Hugh said.

‘They are people, Hugh. That is why,' Papa said.

Hugh would not meet his eyes. ‘Where are those cattle, eh? They can't all be hiding in the scrub. The blacks will be stealing them. It's no wonder people take matters into their own hands, and I say it's time for us to be thinking of it.'

‘If they are taking the cows, why would things be so bad that they needed provisions?' I said. The things Hugh said were like equations that could not balance.

‘You could not possibly understand what it's like, Hester,' he said.

‘Take me. I'd gladly come. I would like to understand.'

‘Hugh, Hettie. Enough,' Papa said.

‘Oh dear,' Mama said. ‘Hettie, we must do more potatoes,' and she left the room pushing her sleeves up as she went. I believe she really thought they might be murdered each time they were gone from home, and their return was marked each time by her small surges of purpose.

‘Papa,' I said, pausing at the door. ‘Was it Tull's family there? Did you see him?'

‘No, not his. I didn't know them. It was a long way from here, north of McGrath's. In spring he will be back I daresay and then we shall see.'

It seemed the cold would never end, but there came a day when the air turned soft and I took the dishes and the basin to the end of the veranda where the sun skimmed it in the morning, and filled it with hot water from the kettle and washed them. In the week that followed birds teemed in from the north and flung themselves at the lagoon and began a cacophonous calling. They were urgent in all that they did, action coming from impulse rather than consideration and duty. It would change when their eggs hatched.

Fred and Addie and Albert sat on the veranda to do their lessons, Albert kicking and fidgeting, their heads lifting to gaze at the lagoon. It was more molten metal than water. I could not help feeling my spirits rise and shut my eyes to feel the warmth on my face and when I opened them again Tull was there. He stood poised at the top of the steps waiting for a greeting, a welcome, whatever form that might take. I never met a more conscious person on the particulars of manners and customs.

‘Tull. It's Tull,' Albert said. Everyone leapt up.

Tull was embarrassed at this effusion, and smiled in relief and came forward and was one of us again. His teeth, so white, startled me afresh. He had grown again and was pale, for him, after the short days. He wore a cloak and Stanton's old trousers. There was the stitching I had done at the thigh where they had caught, their worn knees, the frayed heels above Tull's ankles, which gave a curious sailor's look to his attire.

He began to stay with us more constantly, and after Papa found him asleep on the back step one morning wrapped in nothing but his sea-grass cloak for warmth he said he might stay with us if his family were agreeable, which they were. They knew we were no danger to him by then, I daresay. Papa built him a room of his own by closing off a narrow section of the veranda's return. Fred envied it. In it was a simple bed of wood that Papa had made, two hooks on the door to hang his clothes from at night, two carved clubs, a shield and several spears, which bristled in the corner behind the door.

The early morning was taken up with milking and lessons, and we took turns with the cheese in the afternoon, but there were occasions – Sunday afternoon, or before the evening milking – when Fred and Tull could slip away on explorations, either along the lagoon or across to the peninsula. Fred preferred Tull's company to Albert's, which I know Albert felt. His eyes followed them. Fred did not mean any harm or malice; he was oblivious. If Albert wished to go with them, Fred agreed – ‘Only try to be quiet this time, or you'll scare everything off again' – but it is never pleasant to be merely tolerated and Albert began to go about with Papa and Stanton and Hugh even if his help were not needed.

If the weather was fine and Mama and Mary were napping and the chores were done I sometimes rowed to the peninsula with them. Papa and Mama saw no harm in it as a Sunday activity. We roamed the sand hills together, Fred with his note book and a satchel containing collection jars and the cloth bags that he used to keep his plant specimens safe and Tull with a spear and a net bag.

The ocean side of the peninsula must always be visited to experience the waves smashing the beach and the salt spray on our faces. The wind roared from the south, driving the fine white sand into clothes and hair and faces. Tull melted away high up between two sand hills. When I scrambled up to see where he had gone he was already at the far side of a sand-filled valley. Fred came up behind and we went into the deep hollow, and flopped in the lee of the hill. In an instant, the sounds of the sea beach became muffled.

All about us, erupting from the sand, were spiky single-stemmed plants about a foot tall: hundreds, thousands of them, irregularly spaced, neither sparse nor dense. I lay with my front against the warm sand, my chin separated from the sand only by my flattened hands.

‘What are you doing?' Fred said.

‘Everything is different from here. It's like being in a forest.' With my gaze at the height of some small creature I could imagine the plants about me to be strange trees towering around. ‘They're like pine trees,' I said. ‘Only miniature. Look, Freddie, how neat they are and all exactly the same.'

‘They're not conifers,' Freddie said, shifting his gaze from his drawing to the plants.

‘They might be.'

‘They're not. They're euphorbias. At least I think they are.'

‘Oh.' I thought of Papa's stories of visiting Japan during his voyaging days, how people there liked to transform tree seedlings into miniatures of their grown selves by pinching at their roots and leaves, and contorting their limbs into the shape that they saw fit, regardless of their natural inclination. I could not do such a thing to a living thing that had its own design and purpose, and so I said to Papa, who replied mildly enough that I saw nothing wrong with pruning a rose bush or a lilac, which was true, but the degree of interference made it different to me. It was more than enough, it was marvellous to see the ingenuity of pure nature on those windswept slopes, the plants responding to wind and moisture and light. Papa would say it was God's genius. Whether he was right or not I did not know.

‘Do you remember those plants Papa told us of, when he was in Japan?' I said.

Fred gave one of his frowns of patience balanced with impatience. ‘I suppose,' and was intent again on his work.

When he had finished his drawing and notes and there was still no sign of Tull, Fred arranged himself in imitation of my posture. ‘I see what you mean. We are become Lilliputians, Hett. Imagine if a lizard came through: a monster, half the height of the trees, crashing them out of its path.'

It was an alarming thought, but I could see nothing when I raised my head. Instead, a millipede entered the canyon between us, its legs writhing and antennae feeling the air.

Fred scooped it up and observed the slow ribbon of it flowing across his skin. ‘It doesn't know that I am dangerous, that on another day things might end differently.' He touched it and watched it coil, then uncoil, before releasing it.

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