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Authors: Alex Miller

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Watching the Climbers on the Mountain (7 page)

BOOK: Watching the Climbers on the Mountain
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Looking back on it since, she knew she had grown up in that instant. Just like that, she had found herself alone suddenly with only her own resources to go on. The initial rush of fear into her mind had quickly given way to a deep sense of excitement, of joy even. She had been—and still was, though now in a rather more disorienting way—dazzled by the implications of this momentous event. She had sat there at the breakfast table staring at her father and willing him with all the power of her mind to acknowledge the effect of his words on her, but knowing that he would not, or perhaps could not, for reasons that were beyond them both. The special relationship they had always nursed along had never been a very robust thing: he had trusted her perception of his inner realities (he could not actually
share
them with her) in a way he did not trust either her brother or her mother. But their rapport had died in that moment. And with that meagre business out of the way, she had stood forward as herself. Her sudden laughter when she had got up to leave the breakfast table had puzzled all of them at the time, and had frightened Alistair.

The minute her mother had released them from classes on the day of Robert Crofts' arrival, Janet had run here to the men's quarters and had stood in the doorway staring at the new stockman for a long time. Sensing something going on that was beyond him, Alistair had hung back unhappily, prowling nervously behind her, longing to get away at once out into the high grass as usual. He had dreaded, even then, any thought of letting Crofts in on anything; he wanted to keep things as they were, to keep everything secret, secure and intact between himself and his sister—as they had always been, complete for each other. But Janet had sensed immediately that Crofts' arrival, unlike the arrival of other stockmen before him, signalled the end of all that. It had been obvious to her. It had been so obvious, in fact, that she had never even thought of mentioning it to Alistair, or anyone else. And besides, there was no one else.

From that moment, Janet had begun to see her father as an ordinary failure, instead of the guardedly sympathetic and mysteriously complex man she had previously considered him to be. She began to be contemptuous of what she now construed as his inability to live up to his expectations of himself. And this diminished view of her father afforded her a measure of her own newly acquired stature. She did not, in this process of review, deny that she was ‘like' her father, she simply came to believe that, with an endowment so similar to his, she would not fail as he had. Standing at the door of the stockman's quarters that day, watching Crofts unpack his few belongings, she confidently awaited objective confirmation of the new order of things.

As she stood there gazing at the slightly embarrassed newcomer it all seemed clear to her. What could be simpler? Another little click in her brain to get this thing settled. That was all that was needed. But as she stood there staring silently at him, ignoring his friendly greeting, the expected click did not happen. After a couple of attempts at breaking the ice Crofts gave up on her and continued putting his things away, behaving as if she were not there. He even hummed a tuneless melody to himself and finally lay down on the bunk with his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling in a way that people only do when they are entirely alone. In a few minutes he had drifted into a daydream and its images flitted across his relaxed features.

Janet Rankin had observed the stockman's mind at work that day and at once she had understood him completely. Before he had had time to conceal it, she had glimpsed the source of his solitariness. And she had been offended and confused by Crofts' impenetrable arrogance, by the way in which he confidently occupied a place sacred to himself, somewhere apart from the rest of humanity. The infuriating part had been recognising in Crofts a conviction that matched her own most deeply cherished belief about herself; like her, he obviously considered his destiny superior to that of others around him.

Indignant beyond words with the daydreaming stockman she had signalled to Alistair. Together they had suddenly screamed at the unsuspecting Crofts: ‘Stupid pommy bastard!' and had run shrieking to their secret lair far out in the tall grass, flinging themselves down and laughing and wrestling hysterically for more than an hour in an effort to exorcise their fears, until they were both shaking with exhaustion.

The rattling of chains across iron and the sudden furious barking of the dogs announced the arrival of the car at the night-paddock gate. Alistair jumped to his feet and was gone without a word.

Crofts' arm relaxed and he relinquished the whip, causing her to stumble backwards, her bare legs scraping painfully against the frame of the other bunk. ‘Here they are,' he said.

‘So bloody what?' she replied, looking at him with disgust and rubbing the back of her legs. ‘Here
you
are and so bloody what!' She turned and took a step towards the door then stopped and suddenly lashed the mattress next to him with furious strokes of the broken whip. ‘Shit!' she cried, lashing the mattress again and again. ‘Shit! Shit! Shit!'

‘Take it easy!' Crofts pleaded, getting up quickly, a nervous smile on his lips. He was wondering if she would take a swipe at him if he dared put his hand on her.

‘Like you?' she asked with contempt. She had set the rules to the game and he had obeyed every one of them; when she had stopped he had stopped, and when she had gone on he had gone on. He had not taken the initiative once, so it had remained her game. She stared at him coldly. Then she took a deep breath, folded the whip neatly, and dropped it onto his bed. ‘You should have been a woman,' she said, still attempting to sting him, but in a way she meant it.

As she turned to leave there was a thud of boots on the verandah and Gil Sturgiss strode through the door. He was skinny and almost two metres tall. He wore R.M. Williams leatherneck cowboy boots and a carefully shaped Akubra sombrero. In his left hand he carried an expensive German hunting rifle, which he held out from his body, as if offering it as a token of goodwill. His blue eyes were shining and he smiled a wide and expectant smile.

‘Gidday, Robert,' Gil Sturgiss said, greeting a certain friend. He extended his right hand for a shake while thrusting the rifle out with the other. ‘Check her out. Take a shot at something. We'll have a shooting match.'

•

Christmas Day lunch brought them all together on the western verandah. The gallery-like space of this room was even more pronounced today. The fully extended dining table occupied the centre. It was draped with a heavy white linen cloth on which silver and crockery and numerous dishes of food had been carefully arranged. There were green peas and orange carrots and bright red peppers suspended in clear amber domes of chilled savoury aspic, trembling and glittering in the diffused light of the verandah. Above these dishes, dangling from chains of paper decorations, brightly coloured globes of glass rotated slowly on their threads, mirroring the scene in miniature; while beside them, down the length of the table, were gleaming crystal glasses, brimming with cold white wine and for the children sparkling lemonade. Over all, the rich and succulent aroma of roasting meat filled the air. The bustle of preparation had finished and they were all seated, ready to begin. At the head of the table, against the streaming light, sat Ward Rankin. He was freshly shaved and bathed and dressed in a laundered white shirt, tucked neatly into a pair of pale grey tailored slacks of some light synthetic material. They were waiting for a signal from him. Here in this bright cool place, gathered before the family's old silver and crystal and fine linen—preserved for this from a bygone era—they waited for him. And they forgot the silent waiting wilderness outside.

Ward Rankin's gaze took in the scene before him. ‘To a happy Christmas,' he said, raising his glass to them.

‘To a happy Christmas!' they chorused in response, each of them reaching out eagerly now to clink glasses before drinking. They were suddenly all half-standing and laughing at once, the adults hesitating only for an instant before going along with the children's superstitious fear that any glass not clinked with all the others must bring ill luck to the drinker and might even prevent unity among them. So the ritual was strictly observed; the goodwill was new and unflawed and had to be shared equally to become perfect.

But even at such instants as these some obscure obstacles to perfection cannot be ignored. Had it not been for such obstacles Ward Rankin might have felt himself to be in possession of that civilised equilibrium he had always longed for in himself and in his life—the result of a calm restraint and certain active sympathies working together over a long period of years. An apprehension of that equilibrium hovered about him as he reached out to his wife and touched the rim of her glass with his, as she smiled in the golden light and as they wished each other a happy Christmas, as if all were well between them. The noise rose like a rapid tide of pleasure around them. ‘Clink' their glasses touched lightly rim to rim for an instant and the pale yellow wine was cold and refreshing on their lips. ‘Happy Christmas,' while the goodwill is new and unflawed.

He carved the turkey, and the plates were passed up and down the length of the table. The celebration was underway. The small ritual had worked its magic; the link would hold for a while.

‘Oh, he's given you a drumstick, Robert!' Ida Rankin exclaimed as if it gave her extraordinary pleasure. She was laughing as she passed the stockman's laden plate to him.

And Gil shouted, ‘Good on you, Robert! To Robert's first Aussie Christmas!' and they all shouted at once, grabbing their glasses again, energy and generosity flowing from them as if it would never be checked.

‘To Robert's first Aussie Christmas!' they sang out, gazing eagerly at the stockman, forgetting everything else, certain that their offering would be well received. And Robert Crofts smiled and nodded and thanked them, and he tried to think of something special to say to fulfil the expectations of the moment. But there was no need. Their voices rose higher and nothing would hinder them.

The lunch party continued noisily into the middle of the afternoon, by which time the verandah had become uncomfortably hot. The station owner was the first to leave; when it came to his turn again he excused himself from a fourth round of charades and retreated to the cool isolation of the sitting room which, increasingly, was serving as a private cell within his own household. After making a brief telephone call to Reg Waterhouse, the Secretary of the Red Cross Society in Springtown, he sat staring at the handset. He was still sitting there, worrying in an aimless fashion, when Janet came to rouse him around five o'clock for the excursion to Toby's Hole—a Christmas Day event as unchallengeable in its tradition on the Rankin place as Christmas lunch itself.

Gil Sturgiss had talked Ida Rankin into following her husband's example and going for a siesta, proclaiming, in his rousing way, that he would organise everyone into a washing-up brigade to deal with the debris before she awoke. So she also gladly left the heat of the western verandah and went to the privacy of her own bedroom. Once there she paused for a moment with her back to the closed door, examining her reflection in the full-length cheval mirror, which was set at an angle close to the opposite wall—she had carefully adjusted it to this position so that she could see the tops of the ranges reflected in it from the window when she was lying in bed. She observed herself critically while she undressed now, and when she was naked she made a face at her reflection before lying down. She was not really unhappy with her appearance; the look of dissatisfaction was more by way of a very private self-congratulation. She lay on the bed gazing up at the bunched folds of the mosquito net gathered around the iron ring above her head.

Never more at ease, usually, than when her brother was visiting, today she juggled for a long time with a dozen or so details of organisation relating to the carnival in Springtown tomorrow—none of them were of any great significance, and there was nothing she could do to resolve any of them now anyway. They persisted in preoccupying her nevertheless, fixed there stubbornly, riffling the surface of her mind and denying her the relaxed mood she had looked forward to.

In any shared moment of pleasure with her husband there was always an after-note of sadness and a feeling of regret about which she could do nothing. Such instants reminded her only too forcefully that vital connections still existed between them—connections that even a lifetime of separateness might never completely sever. She accepted that the past decade and a half of her life with him had ensured that, no matter what happened, henceforth there would always be something of Ward Rankin about Ida Sturgiss. And she was too intelligent to deny this, although it might have simplified things for her had she done so. She acknowledged, furthermore, that it was unlikely the same were true for him. For despite his apparent complexity, wasn't there, she had asked herself, something finally impermeable about his nature? She had the awful sense sometimes that he was set unwillingly on a course from which no external influence or personal decision of his own could deflect him. And her heart went out to him then, as they looked at each other across a distance that did not seem to be of their own making. So the lingering sadness and the pointless regret.

But today there was something else, besides this larger enduring concern, that was enlivening her thoughts when she would have preferred them dulled by a pleasant wooziness from the wine she had drunk. A small incident had altered the mood of the gathering just before her husband had left the verandah. She was not actively thinking about either this incident or her relations with her husband, but resonances from both were having an unsettling effect on her.

For more than an hour she did not sleep.

The heat hung over the house and silenced the world outside. Small stray noises penetrated to her from the kitchen. Gil, at least, had the clean-up well under control out there! She smiled to herself. He was being protective. Making sure his older sister was given due appreciation around the Rankin place. She knew this was how Gil saw it. She loved him for his mixture of old-fashioned Queensland chivalry and completely modern carelessness. Always patiently concerned with people, he had shown since his earliest childhood a profligate disregard for things and their cost.

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