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Authors: Rose Tremain

The Colour (8 page)

BOOK: The Colour
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‘But where is the grinding stone?'
Harriet laced the fingers of her two hands to show the action of the interlocked wheels, one revolving right to left like the hands of a clock and the other turning on a vertical axis like a spinning top. ‘Here is the grinding stone,' she said, indicating a point just below her elbow, and Edwin nodded, pleased with the information and his understanding of it, pressing the palms of his hands together to mill imaginary grain. ‘In four years' time,' he said, ‘I shall go to school in Christchurch. Papa says that by then I must know how things came to be as they are.'
‘It may be impossible to know how everything came to be as it is.'
‘Because to know a thing, you must know the principle and root of it and sometimes these are hidden from us.'
‘Why are they hidden from us?'
‘Either because they are too far away, like the stars, or because our minds can't imagine them.'
‘I can imagine everything,' said Edwin. ‘I know Maori things, too, which Mama and Papa do not know.'
‘Maori things?'
‘Yes. Do you know what the word maori means?'
‘No. It means
. The Maoris were in New Zealand before us. They call it Aotearoa. When we came, they thought we looked funny. They thought they were normal and we were strange.'
Harriet nodded. ‘How did you learn this, Edwin?'
‘Pare told me.'
‘My nurse, when I was a baby and the wind blew my cradle.'
‘Your mother told me she'd been sent away . . .'
‘She was sent away. But sometimes she comes back. She hides in the toi-toi grass and I talk to her. She can make the grass soft by plaiting it and then we sit down.'
‘Do your mama and papa know that you talk to Pare?'
‘No,' said Edwin. ‘And you mustn't tell them. They could send her away again.'
Because the day was bright, after the bitter fog and snow, and because the donkey couldn't lift its head from the floor, Dorothy pronounced that she, Harriet and Edwin would ride to a sheltered place on the run known as Pukeko Creek after the swamp-hens which nested there. They would take lunch in a basket and ale for Toby, who would meet them down by the water. At Pukeko Creek there was a shepherd's hut and they would make a fire and eat a picnic. Toby might shoot some hens. Edwin might try to catch the muddy ika which swam in the green shallows.
So they set out under the wide sky, the horses frisky and longing to gallop. They hurtled over the flats, skirting the clover fields, sending sheep running and bleating in random directions. Strands of Harriet's hair unfolded themselves from the knot she'd made of them and buffeted her cheeks and whipped themselves round her neck.
She had never ridden at such a speed. The land spread out at every corner of her vision. Shadows of white clouds caressed the valleys and sailed on. Ahead of her, Dorothy's chestnut mare and Edwin's grey pony raced through the bright air faster and faster, until Harriet could no longer hear the sound of their hooves and they became smaller and smaller, a tiny, shimmering cluster of colour on the fawn palette of hills.
And the further away from her they moved, the more exhilarated Harriet became. To be alone here, alone with a strong horse in all this magnificent vastness! Alone and alone and alone, with no one guiding or leading. Alone in a desert of hills that lay between the mountains and the sea . . .
She began to rein in the horse, slowing it to a canter and then to a trot. She pulled it at last to a stop and it remained still, sneezing and blowing and tossing its mane in the wind. Sweat ran into Harriet's eyes. Her heart pulsed with a rhythm unrecognisable as its own. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve, patted the horse's neck, heard her breath tearing at her lungs.
She didn't dismount, but stayed in the saddle, looking from horizon to horizon and finding no one and nothing but herself and the horse and their shadows and the shadows of clouds. A bird turned above her, against the cold blue of the sky. Harriet saw it as the majestic witness of a sudden happiness and she knew that in the time to come she would remember it.
She knew also that, in a little while, Dorothy and Edwin would return, worried that she had fallen. In fairness to them, she must gather the reins and urge the horse on. Yet she didn't want to move, didn't want to join the picnic and the fishing. She wanted to remain where she was. She wanted the dusk to come on and then the darkness. She wanted to ride alone through the hours of the night with a silent escort of stars.
The Tea Box from China
While Harriet was away, Joseph walked down the line of the creek to the place where the Cob House should have been built – to the place where he rebuilt it in his mind.
There were no trees here, no scrub, no ferns, no features at all, only a level plateau of tussock grass and stones. But the plateau was protected by a south-facing spur. When you arrived here, you could feel the air sweeten. The terrible sighing and pounding of the wind in your ears suddenly ceased. The men who had called Joseph a cockatoo had been right and he had been wrong; this was where the house would eventually have to stand.
Joseph paced out the plateau, measured its distance from the creek, tried with his bare hands to pull a grey boulder out of the earth. When the summer came, he told himself, if any money remained to buy timber, he would lay down the foundations of a new building. Years, it might take, for he would be alone in his task, could afford no more hired labour. But at least he would have begun, he would have admitted his error. In the new beginnings of this second house would lie his hopes for the future. All life, he thought as he tugged at the boulder, is a flight from mistake to mistake.
Joseph sat on the hard ground and looked up the line of the creek to where the Cob House stood. While working on it, in his first euphoria of construction, he had thought up names for it: Hope Farm, White Cloud Farm, New Paradise Farm, but as yet, he hadn't burdened it with any of these. It was just ‘the cob house' and in this anonymity lay his admission that it was contingent, that for Lilian's sake, if for no one else's, he would have to build something better than this one day.
Joseph Blackstone longed to do something that would please his mother. Something definitive. Something which would undo all that he'd done wrongly or inadequately in the past. He thought that if he could achieve this, then he would rest. He didn't know precisely what he meant by rest.
Now, as he sat on the hard ground of the sheltered plateau, he remembered how, as a child, he used to scream. He screamed at things that moved towards him: a ball thrown or a hoop bowled, the sudden flight of a bird out of a tree in the garden. He screamed at a red-and-yellow spinning top given to him for his seventh birthday. The way the red and yellow merged, as the top spun, to become one indescribable colour, the way the top changed direction without warning, these things made him scream.
Lilian couldn't endure this screaming of his. She would clamp her hand over his mouth. Sometimes her hand smelled of potato peelings and sometimes it smelled of chocolate or eau-de-Cologne. She threatened to glue his lips together. She told him screaming was ‘vulgar'. She told him poor people screamed but not the son of a livestock auctioneer, not the grandson of a vicar.
One evening, Lilian and Roderick Blackstone took Joseph to a circus and he saw acrobats swooping through the air. He felt Lilian's hand clamp itself across his mouth. He tried to be quiet. The costumes of the acrobats were spangled, as though they were made of glass and might shatter. Then a man with a whip came into the ring and round the man paced three snarling tigers and it seemed to Joseph that there was nothing anyone could do, in the face of these tigers, other than to scream at them.
Lilian took him by the collar and marched him out into the darkness, marched him all the way home along the moonlit lanes and tied him into his bed and bound his mouth with an old sash which smelled of camphor. She told him that if he screamed any more he would no longer be her son.
After that night of the circus, he tried never to scream at anything, to keep all strong emotion locked inside him. When he felt a scream coming on, he would run away and bite his arm or his knee. Sometimes, he hid in the cupboard under the stairs, where the brooms and brushes were kept, and he would stare at these things and long to be them, or long to be, like them, something which had no feeling.
When his father died, Joseph felt his old desire to scream returning. He could master it only by refusing to think about the ostriches and the mutilated body in the field. So he gradually fell into the habit of suppressing, both to himself and to others, the actual manner of Roderick Blackstone's dying, referring only to ‘his last sufferings' as though his father had expired from a protracted illness. And in this way, he was able to remain mute and controlled.
Joseph stood up. Today, the sky above the Cob House was a deep and startling blue, a rarefied un-English blue that made him yearn for the return of summer. He walked to the creek's edge and squatted down and put his hands in the icy water. Swollen with the snow-melt, Harriet's Creek was now a rushing torrent. Once the channel was dug to his pond, it would fill very fast. Joseph had heard that Tasmanian trout might be bought somewhere along the Ashley and had decided he would stock his pond with these.
Joseph wiped his hands on the tussock and began to walk back towards the Cob House, following the creek. Where scrub roots clung to the very edge of the further bank, the water, in its new frenzy, had taken a different course, revealing a sliver of muddy shore, on which some blue-duck were wading. Joseph stopped to watch the birds. As the winter progressed, he knew that he would have to take out his gun and begin shooting what wildfowl he could track down to keep the three of them fed.
But now, hearing the cry of the ducks, he felt his mind return to an autumn morning in Norfolk, waiting with his gun for mallard and widgeon, watching the haze begin to lift off the river, fumbling with his bag of cartridges, feeling the cold and his own solitude and then seeing, approaching through the mist, Rebecca wrapped in her brown cloak, her face oval and white in the mauvish light of dawn.
She called to him: ‘Brought you griddle-cakes and tea, Joseph Blackstone. Gave my mam the slip.' And she came and stood by him, holding her little basket of food, and his hand on the gun barrel began shaking. He tried to turn away from her, but she touched his arm and he moved his head and saw her laughing, her mouth open and wet and her fascinating crooked teeth like a taunt, a provocation . . .
The blue-duck launched themselves into the bubbling creek and bobbed out of sight. Joseph rubbed his eyes. There was a glare on the water, but beyond the glare, something else, a flicker of colour in the grey mud where the ducks had stood. As his memory of Rebecca began to slide away – back into the darkness where he wanted it to remain – Joseph concentrated on this colour. For a few moments, the sun disappeared behind a cloud and, in the shadow, nothing of it was visible, only the shingly mud and the herringbone imprints of the ducks' feet. But Joseph knew that he'd seen something. He stood without moving, waiting for the sun to come out again. It returned and sparkled on the water, dazzling him. He had to close his eyes for a second and when he opened them again, he'd forgotten the precise spot where the colour had revealed itself. Then, he saw it once more, a minute patch of shining yellow dust.
Joseph removed his heavy boots and his woollen socks and began to wade across the icy creek. Almost unbalanced by the current, he stooped and clung to stones, making his way to the mud-bank like a four-legged animal. He felt glad he was alone, felt the excitement, in fact, of being here alone with his discovery. And when he arrived on the further shore, he sank down on to his knees, not caring how his trousers would be soiled. With trembling hands, he scooped into his palms a spoonful of grey mud dusted with gold.
All day, he worked, combing the earth and stones. He gave no thought to Harriet, away on her journey to the Orchard Run, nor to Lilian, asleep in her room, oblivious to the sun and the blue sky. Once, he returned to the Cob House and found a shallow casserole dish the approximate shape of a gold-pan. Then he went back to the creek, taking this and a tin jug. Scooping mud into the dish, drenching it with creek-water from the jug, swilling it about so that the fine particles of sand and clay were washed away, leaving behind the heavier grains of gold, he was able to believe that nothing escaped his sight. On the dry ground under the scrub, he spread out a handkerchief, and by mid-day a little mound of bright dust, a mound the size of a man's thumb-nail, lay there. Joseph knelt over it, put a finger into it and saw the tiny particles adhere to his skin. Tenderly, he brought his finger close to his face, caressed the gold with his eyes. He felt a scream rising in his heart.
His head was full of hectic planning. He knew he was going to keep his discovery secret. Later on, if a great fortune was waiting for him here along the creek bed, then he would talk about it, share it, but not yet. The creek, low down here on the undulating flat, wasn't visible from the Cob House. So he would come to this place alone and unobserved when Harriet was working her vegetable plot or stirring the washing in her copper and when Lilian was sleeping or mending china. With his rudimentary tools, he would patiently work every inch of mud. Then, towards summer, as the level of the creek fell after the freshes of spring, more and more of the little shoreline would be revealed and he alone would know what he might find there.
He reasoned also that secrecy was a prudent measure. If he told Harriet that there was gold in her creek, then somehow (because she was a woman and women liked to reveal what was in their hearts) she might let slip this information to the Orchards and from the Orchard Run it would stream outwards – carried far and wide by the shepherds, even whispered by the Maoris in their sing-song tongue – and sooner or later there would be a Rush; the hordes would come, the men who had found gold in Australia in the ‘fifties and then in Otago at the beginning of the new decade and were only waiting (who knew where?) for the next discovery. They would arrive with their pans and cradles, their sluice-boxes and their picks. All along the creek, their shanties would appear, their grog-shops, their latrines and their filth. What had been Joseph's land would be annexed by the Canterbury Government and Miner's Rights sold by the hundred. The farm would be destroyed, the gold dredged and shipped out and he – who had begun it, who had been the first man to see the colour on the sliver of mud,
river – would be left with nothing.
BOOK: The Colour
6.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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