CEDRIC MARCHANT LEFT England for the first time at the age of forty-one. He travelled to France by train and boat at the insistence of his sister, Freda, who had gone to live in the Dordogne with a painter from Leeds who called himself Roberto.
Freda, who was forty-three, seemed to think that Roberto was a younger man. How she could tell was beyond Cedric because Roberto had a shaven skull and an orange beard covered his face up to his small close-set violent eyes.
The hairy artist came with two offspring, a cheerful boy of eight and a fat teenage girl with rings in ears, nose and lower lip. She communicated by snarling and was not seen to eat anything except a breakfast cereal called Poppo, taken directly from the box. Marchant avoided looking at her lest this appear provocative. He enjoyed his short stay abroad, although he formed the impression that there were more French people living in his own village of Lower Roebuck than in the hamlet of La Bastide-St-Maurice.
When he arrived home, Cedric found the letter from Australia waiting. It was addressed to the school and re-addressed by Mrs Cuthbert in her slashing, vindictive hand. Marchant was surprised that she hadn′t returned it to sender marked: NOT AT THIS ADDRESS.
He dated Mrs Cuthbert′s antagonism from the day he politely declined an invitation to speak to her book group on the subject of the postmodern English novel.
'I didn′t know there was a postmodern English novel,′ he said. 'Isn′t modern now?′
She stared at him. 'For some reason,′ she said, 'one expects senior English masters to be abreast of their subjects.′
Cedric saw the hand of the treacherous sycophant Mathis in this. 'Mr Mathis,′ he said. 'He′s your man. Person. I saw him with a copy of The Line of something. Won the thingy prize. Least Resistance?′
'It′s called The Line of Beauty,′ Mrs Cuthbert said, showing her upper teeth and a broad vista of pink gum. 'I can see that you have no interest in widening the intellectual conversation.′
Cedric had no idea what the intellectual conversation was and he was sure that he would never get a word in anyway. But, because he didn′t like any exchange to end on a sour note, he tried to start a new topic. Mrs Cuthbert was determined to be offended, however, and he limped away.
Letter from Australia in hand, Cedric thought about the looming term at the Gollop School. The prospect gassed him with the same gloom and foreboding he had felt as a boy on the last day of the holidays. He went down the dark and narrow passage into the kitchen and sat at the table.
The envelope bore two bright stamps, Australian stamps, featuring a child′s drawing of a sheep and a cow. The animals were the same size. Had the faraway country produced a super-sheep? Or was it possible that the cows were smaller? The place was said to be very dry. It could be an evolutionary adaptation.
He opened the letter with the breadknife. Two sheets of paper with the letterhead:
Girton, Thomas & McGnarr
Barristers & Solicitors
St Arnaud VIC 3351
Dear Mr Marchant,
The occasion for this letter is the official declaration of the death of our client Mr Cyril Rodney Marchant, of Orpheus Downs Station, Victoria, Australia. Mr Marchant disappeared from his boat in the Gulf of Carpenteria in September 1999. He was then 76 years of age, divorced and without issue.
In our client′s will of July 1996, Mr Roger Marchant of Manchester or his oldest male descendant is named as the sole beneficiary of his estate. We have ascertained that the aforesaid Mr Roger Marchant is Mr Roger Clement Marchant, formerly of 23A Ludlow Street, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, deceased 15 October 1998. Our inquiry agent informs us that you are the sole male heir of Mr Roger Clement Marchant and, therefore, the heir to Mr CR Marchant′s estate.
We would be grateful if you could forward to us certified copies of your birth certificate, passport, driver′s licence and any other documents that would assist us in confirming your identity.
The letter went on to say that Mr Cyril Marchant′s estate contained 'the freehold of the unencumbered property known as Orpheus Downs; the freehold and contents of the business premises known as the Guardian building at 12 Carbine Street, Halls Well; $133, 654.00 dollars in cash on deposit at the Bendigo Bank, St Arnaud; a 1983 Toyota LandCruiser; a Jeep of unknown date; a Massey Ferguson tractor; a four-metre aluminium boat; two trail bikes; workshop equipment, farm equipment and sundries; seven firearms, thirteen fishing rods, assorted other fishing equipment, six saddles and assorted saddlery, household and personal effects, including furniture and books, a stuffed crocodile, nine large stuffed and mounted fish, and a buffalo head′.
It was signed BJ Thomas, LLB.
Cedric looked out of the window at a dismal scene: rain falling on a small overgrown garden, running down the roof of a listing shed held up only by ivy and other creepers.
A stuffed crocodile.
He was the owner of a stuffed crocodile.
And many stuffed fish. And a buffalo head. And guns, saddles, trail bikes, a LandCruiser and a boat.
Thank you, Uncle Cyril.
Cedric′s father had often spoken of his brother, always in tones of mild disapproval. Cyril had gone to sea at sixteen. As far as Cedric knew, he never came back. He could clearly remember his father reading out letters from Uncle Cyril, commenting as he went:
'Dear Roger (no comma) Hope this finds you and your′s (apostrophe mistake) well. Im (no apostrophe) on a ship on the Sydney Yokohama (no hyphen) run and genarally (spelling mistake) living the life of Riley (spelling wrong, no comma) at least when Im (no apostrophe) on shore (no punctuation) nudge nudge wink wink take my meaning (no commas).′
Cedric′s father′s occupation as a typesetter and proofreader had given him an eye for lapses in spelling, syntax and punctuation. Every evening, Wally Marchant brought home copies of The Times and the Daily Telegraph. After supper, he sat at the kitchen table, glass of Hinchbottom′s Old Tawny Port to hand, and examined the newspapers line by line, column by column, crying out at a discovery of a mistake or infelicity.
'That′s a bloody who, not a bloody that. Tory illiterates. Born to bloody rule, the buggers don′t even have a grip on the English language. Come here, boy. Look at this.′
Marchant had always sat with his father at the table and done his homework. His sister, Freda, always sat in the front room, watching television.
One hundred and thirty-three thousand Australian dollars. How much money was that?
And a station called Orpheus Downs, Victoria, Australia. A station. He liked the sound of the word.
O Lord, could he stop teaching at Gollop′s?
Well, why not?
Marchant felt a surge of joy at the prospect of never again driving up the Gollop School′s dripping avenue to park the Austin A40 on the balding gravel behind the toilet block, of never again tiptoeing fearfully past the headmaster′s office, of never again opening his own cell-like chamber′s door to release the sad smell of a suitcase closed for fifty years.
Cedric got up, paced the room. Goodbye to trying not to offend people: the flushed and venomous headmaster; the dreadful Mrs Cuthbert; the parents who somehow believed that paying school fees made him responsible for turning their dim offspring into what Mathis called 'fluent communicators′; and Mathis, the oleaginous assassin.
Could he do it? Could he write a letter saying that he would not be returning next term? Gollop′s was the only job he had ever had. It was the only school that would give him a post when he left York with his miserable second-class degree. He was offered a term′s teaching, then another, and another, and finally a permanent position.
Resign? Oh yes he could. He got out a lined pad and dashed off a letter.
Dear Mr Purdon,
It is with pleasure that I inform you that I will not be returning to the Gollop School next term. My solicitors will be in touch regarding my entitlements.
He read the letter, put it aside, and thought for a while. Then he wrote another one.
Dear Mr Purdon,
It is with great regret that I write to inform you that, for personal reasons, I will not be returning to the Gollop School next term. I would like to say that my feelings towards you and the school are of admiration and gratitude.
My solicitor will be in touch regarding my entitlements.
Wally Marchant had always cautioned against bridge-burning. You never knew. You might have to ask for your job back.
Cedric put on his raincoat and walked down to the high street. In the butcher′s window, he glimpsed himself: thin face, wet seaweed hair, sad-dog look. He stopped, pushed his floppy hair off his forehead, lifted his chin, smiled the bold smile of an adventurer – a man setting out for Australia to claim his inheritance.
Going to Australia? What a lunatic idea. But looking at himself in the window, he thought, for the second time in half an hour: why not?
Cedric became aware of something ghostly beyond his reflection. It was the butcher, Bertie Stockton, inside the shop, moving his head and waving a hand like a fan of pork sausages.
Cedric passed on quickly, bought a stamp, put spit on his finger and transferred it to the stamp, pressed it down, went outside and, with a flick of the wrist, sent his resignation into the post box. Halfway in. He had to give it a little push.
Cedric walked down the street feeling like a free man. A man of private means. A man with seven firearms, two trail bikes and a stuffed crocodile.
CEDRIC HAD NEVER been on a plane before and, waiting to board, he felt a terrible anxiety. Scalp prickling with sweat, he was considering fleeing the terminal, going home, when he became aware of a boy in an Arsenal bomber jacket staring at him.
The brat had detected his fear. Cedric had much experience of this phenomenon among boys, the bullies. Without thought, he fixed the child with a gaze of pure slit-eyed menace.
The boy packed it in smartly, turned sideways and went back to his electronic game. Cedric found that his anxiety had abated, and then his flight was called. Rising, he thought of a line from Henry Esmond: 'The wine is drawn, M. le Marquis...we must drink it.′
That was the spirit. Wine drawn, dies cast, swords unsheathed, Rubicons crossed, eggs scrambled. There was no going back.
Inside the plane, shuffling along behind an extremely fat young man wearing a slouch hat, stooping to avoid bumping his head, a child pushing at him, Cedric wished very much to go back. Given the chance, he would have undrawn, uncast, sheathed, uncrossed and unscrambled in an instant. It had never occurred to him that aircraft could be so frighteningly narrow, so crammed with people, so lacking in air.
He walked right past his seat and, panicking, had to fight his way back against the flow.
When he found his place, Cedric′s small but heavy bag fell on his head as he tried to put it in the overhead locker. He put it back and it fell on him again. The third time it remained in place. Tears of pain in his eyes, he was climbing over a fat man and a woman with a big head of frizzy blond hair to reach his window seat when his stomach rumbled thunderously in the way it always did when he was creeping past the headmaster′s study. Cringing with embarrassment, Cedric sat and tried to obey the instruction to fasten seatbelts. But he couldn′t find the buckle.
The plane would take off and he would be thrown from his seat. Cedric felt alone and scared, the way he had felt on his first day at school.
'Jesus, I′m sitting on something...′ The woman put a hand under her right buttock and extracted the buckle.
Cedric took it gratefully and joined the two bits. Then he clasped his hands, put them on his chest, closed his eyes and tried not to think about the roaring engines.
'I wouldn′t give a bugger if we crashed on take-off,′ said the woman.
Cedric was not cheered by this devil-may-care attitude to a flaming death. He wanted to be at home in Lower Roebuck, listening to the BBC early evening news on the radio, sipping a glass of the excellent homebrew of his neighbour, Mr Barrow.
'Not a bugger,′ said the woman. 'No, I don′t really care...′
'This is my faith′s time of prayer for the souls of dumb animals,′ Cedric said without opening his eyes. 'I would appreciate silence.′
He had no idea where the words came from but they shut the woman up until the aircraft was definitely airborne and on an even keel. Cedric opened his eyes. The woman patted his forearm.
'You′re spiritual,′ she said. 'I′m like that myself sometimes. I can feel at one with nature.′
How long did it take to get to Australia, thought Cedric. He should have asked the travel agent.
'Jesus, I need to be spiritual, the stress I′ve had,′ said the woman. 'Stress you will not believe.′
'Stress,′ said the man on the aisle in a rich Irish voice. 'My dear child, people often don′t understand the toll it takes.′
Cedric got a look at him. He was wearing a dog collar, he was a priest, a large Irish priest.
'Father O′Brannigan,′ said the priest, offering his left hand to the woman. 'Father Camus O′Brannigan.′
'Cindy Tomacic,′ said the woman, taking his fingertips in her right hand. Cedric thought she was going to kiss the ruby ring on O′Brannigan′s middle finger.
The priestly hand disengaged and was offered to Cedric.
'And you are?′ said O′Brannigan, a tilt of head.
Cedric hated shaking hands. Wally Marchant once said that you could tell a lot about a man by the way he shook hands. Cedric had long regretted not asking him for more information. And this handshake was even worse than usual. He was being offered a big hand, palm down. Then it turned sideways. He gave it a glancing feel, knew he′d got it wrong again.
'Welcome aboard, Cedric,′ said O′Brannigan, as if he owned the aircraft. 'Off to the penal colony, possibly for the term of our natural lives.′
'Not long enough,′ said Cindy. 'Sorry, Cedric. I don′t actually mind England. Except for the bloody Poms. Joke.′
O′Brannigan said, 'And a fine joke, my dear, but I sense pain in you.′
Cedric felt pain developing inside his head. He found a magazine in the pocket below his knees and opened it at an article headlined: 'EXTREME HOLIDAYS: CRASHING THE FEAR BARRIER′. Was that what he had embarked upon?
'Pain,′ said Cindy. 'You are so on the money, father. Absolutely. I′m up to my...chin in pain.′
'Unburden yourself, child,′ said Father O′Brannigan. 'Cedric will be a sympathetic listener. In him I sense the compassion that only sufferin can bring.
Not so, Cedric?′
Cedric didn′t respond, looked at his magazine. He would not be drawn into this.
'Cedric?′ The name now had a steely sound.
Cedric′s resolve melted. He felt compelled to look at the priest.
'You are a listener, are you not?′
Cedric tried to use his face to be non-committal without speaking. The Sri Lankan cleaner at Gollop′s had been able to say yes while shaking his head.
'Of course you are, Cedric,′ said the priest. 'Today so few people want to form the bond of listenin.′
Cedric didn′t want any such bond. Father O′Brannigan was welcome to form it. Catholic priests were probably trained in bonding. The Catholic Church had always been a mystery to Cedric. As a boy, he had asked his father what the Holy See was. 'Well,′ said Wally Marchant, 'there′s the Holy See and the Holy Hear. Then there′s the Holy Taste and the Holy Smell.′
Cedric had probed no further. Early in life, he developed an instinct for when his father′s answers were not to be taken seriously.
'Tell us, Cindy.′
Once Cindy got going, Cedric found himself caught up in her story. A New Zealand girl working in Brighton – well, she wasn′t exactly a girl – met an Englishman called Derek in a pub. In what seemed to be an indecently short time, he had moved in with her.
'He wanted to be a personal trainer,′ said Cindy.
'A what?′ asked Cedric.
They both frowned at him. Cedric realised that the question revealed his ignorance. 'I meant to say where.′
'In London,′ said Cindy. 'He reckoned London was full of rich fat people who needed someone to kick their arses around a park. Sorry, father.′
Cedric nodded, no wiser.
'Anyway,′ said Cindy, 'he wanted me to be a partner in the business. I′d do the books and a bit of training. When I got fit. He was going to get me really fit.′
She was silent. Cedric peeped at her. She was looking at the roof.
'Jeez, Derek, what a bod,′ Cindy said wistfully. 'Rock pecs, six-pack. Manta lats. Bench-press a fridge.′
Cedric looked at her uneasily. Rockpucks. Sexpeck. Mentalets. Bunchprussafrudge. What did these terms mean? Was this why Purdon had dismissed Wayne Watkins, the sports master from New Zealand, after only five weeks at Gollop′s? Perhaps the boys couldn′t understand him. Although Mr Barrow had told a story about Wayne taking off all his clothes in the Prince of Orange and running around the green with only a rugby ball to hide his privates.
Father O′Brannigan was nodding at Cindy, interested.
'I′m an idiot,′ she said. 'I put in my six thousand quid.′ She sniffed, tried to smile. 'All I had. That′s four years of savings. Thank Christ, I had the return ticket.′
'Derek?′ said Father O′Brannigan. 'Are you sayin...′
'A total shonk,′ said Cindy. 'Took off with the money. The cops say I′m number four. And that′s the ones they know about.′
She was really rather pretty, thought Cedric. She had a brave, sweet smile. 'You poor dear,′ he said without thinking.
Cindy squeezed Cedric′s left hand and held it. He blushed but his attitude towards the long journey had improved immeasurably.
ON THE LAST leg of the flight, Cedric found himself reluctant to have it end. Once he had got used to the cramped space, he enjoyed being immobile and having food and drink brought to him. It reminded him of being mildly ill as a child, when his mother was still there to look after him.
He also found himself enjoying the company of Father O′Brannigan and Cindy. They included him in their conversations, asked him lots of questions, and they both told funny stories. Some of the priest′s were quite rude, which made Cedric even more puzzled about Catholicism. A film was shown about a man who turned into a woman but was actually still a man, which was interesting even if he didn′t catch all the jokes. But he laughed along with Cindy and Father O′Brannigan, and enjoyed being part of the laughing.
Cedric also listened through his earphones to music, some of a kind that he did not know existed. Some of it probably should not exist.
It was true, Cedric concluded as he savoured the last meal′s main course, Veal Krakatoa: travel did broaden the mind. The veal came with dwarf vegetables, something else new to him. He had not even reached anywhere and already he was broader in the mind.
'Ceddy, I′m going to miss you so much,′ said Cindy, putting a hand on his thigh and looking at him with her big blue eyes. 'Where were you when I needed a man I could trust?′
Cedric almost choked on the veal. Only his mother had ever called him Ceddy. 'I′ll miss you too,′ he said before he could think about it. He felt a blush rising and it didn′t go away until they were almost on the ground in Melbourne.
After they had collected their bags from the conveyor belt and were looking after Father O′Brannigan′s while he went to the toilet, Cindy said, 'Well, Ceddy, I walk from here.′
'This′s where my return ticket′s from,′ she said. 'And I don′t have a cent to my name.′
'But you′ve got to get to New Zealand.′ Cedric wasn′t sure how far that was from Melbourne but the water in between certainly ruled out walking.
'I′ll find a way.′
This poor wronged and brave woman, thought Cedric. All the way from England, she had known that she would be destitute when she arrived in Australia. And she had never breathed a word of it. She had joked and laughed and pretended that all was well.
'How much does it cost?′ he said.
'The plane ticket? It′s just a few hundred dollars. Four or five, I suppose.′
'Wait here,′ said Cedric.
He had traveller′s cheques, it had all been explained to him. He found the exchange booth and cashed four hundred pounds.
The man gave him far more notes than he expected. Cedric went a short distance away and counted out ten of them. That would pay for the plane ticket. He added two. Three.
He went back to Cindy. 'Here you are,′ he said, offering the money. 'Put this in your purse.′
'Ceddy, don′t be a dill.′
'You can repay me,′said Cedric. 'It′s just a loan.′
'You darling man. I can′t.′
'Yes, you can. Please.′
Cindy blinked rapidly, touched his cheek. 'Well, I feel like blubbing. You are just so, just so...′
She took the money, put it in her bag, scrabbled around and found a scrap of paper and a pen. 'Give me your address, Ceddy.′
Cindy wrote down Cedric′s address and then wrote hers on the paper, tore off the piece and gave it to him. 'I′ll pay you back as soon as I get a job,′ she said. 'And then I′m coming to see you.′
She took him by the shoulders and kissed him on the lips, a long kiss of a kind Cedric had never experienced. He felt weak in the legs, giddy.
And then she walked away. At the sliding doors, she looked back and blew a kiss and then she was gone. Cedric looked around to see if anyone was looking. He adjusted his trousers.
Father O′Brannigan appeared.
'Cindy′s gone,′ said Cedric.
'And isn′t that what always happens with the darlins,′ said the priest. 'Love you and leave you. Not that I′d know anythin about it. Now, how′re you gettin to this property of yours?′
'I thought I might take a train,′ said Cedric. 'Or a bus.′
O′Brannigan laughed, slapped his shoulder. 'Train? Bus? It′s out the back of buggery, man.′
'The back of...′
'Bloody miles from anywhere. No buses or trains out there. You′ll need a reliable vehicle, the four-wheel drive, the bullbars, the water tanks, the extra fuel tank, the snorkel exhaust for the flooded creeks. The flash-flooded creeks.′
Cedric had not considered anything like this. He had thought of Australia as a much bigger England. And drier. Much drier. With larger moors. As in the fabled Outback. A large and dryish moor was the way he had seen the fabled Outback. Sunny too. Obviously. There was no dryish without sunny.
'Well, I don′t know,′ he said. 'I′m not a very good driver.′
'Nothin to it. What′s your car?′
'It′s an Austin A40.′
'A fine rugged conveyance. Perfect preparation. Now you want to be careful where you buy your vehicle, a world of sharks out there. I′m goin to do you a favour, put you on to a former parishioner of mine, honest as the Pope. Fella′s a beacon of honesty in a sea of duplicity.′
'Thank you,′ said Cedric. 'I′m very grateful.′
'What I suggest,′ said Father O′Brannigan, 'is that I give the boy a ring, see what he′s got in stock. And if there′s a suitable vehicle, one of them never left the city, your doctor′s wife′s car to pick up the kiddies from school, we might be able to snap up a bargain.′
'Why would she need water tanks and extra fuel tanks to pick up the children?′ said Cedric.
'Very cautious people, doctors,′ said Father O′Brannigan. 'Take no chances with the nearest and dearest.′
'And what are bullbars?′ said Cedric. 'I don′t...′
'For the animals generally. There′s a massive death wish in the local fauna. They travel for days and weeks to find a road to die on. And the bigger ones, the hoppers and the like, well, they can take you out with them. Come right through the windscreen, a bloody huge great thing like a cow with a big tail. Lands on your lap.′
'I see,′ said Cedric. 'Yes.′
Father O′Brannigan nodded. 'Dangerous place, Australia. Probably better never inhabited. Now you put your bones down over there and I′ll be on the blower to this fella of mine.′
IT TOOK NO more than two hours for Cedric to be on the road to the interior, albeit in a state of high alarm.
Father O′Brannigan′s parishioner turned out to be a dark man called Shane, thin, with gold rings in his long earlobes and on his thumbs. Cedric had difficulty understanding him because it was hard to detect the words that conveyed meaning in the torrent of speech.
The yellow vehicle he brought certainly had the snorkel exhaust and the bullbars. It also had a roof rack reached by a ladder, a winch, four aerials, six spotlights, seats for at least a dozen, and far more dents and scratches than one would expect a doctor′s wife to incur on the school trip.
Cedric had looked helplessly at Father O′Brannigan. 'How many children did the doctor have?′ he said.
'A good Catholic family, practisin the rhythm method,′ said the priest.
'It doesn′t look very...cared for,′ Cedric said.
The priest nodded in agreement. He took Shane aside and spoke to him in what looked to Cedric like a teacherly manner, finger wagging. Shane looked contrite.
When he came back, Father O′Brannigan said, 'Nothin to worry about, my son. Shane′s been naughty, loves the vehicle so much he′s been takin it bush himself, runnin into a few trees and animals and the like. As you do. So he′s now givin a written guarantee, thirty thousand kilometres, any mechanical trouble, your money back, no questions asked.′
'Um, how much?′ said Cedric.
'He was askin twelve. Reckons the tyres are worth three.′
'Thousand. Amazin, not so?′
'I don′t think,′ said Cedric, trying to speak firmly, 'that I can afford more than the tyres.′
'Course not,′ said the priest. 'Outrageous sum. I′ve had the word with him and it′s now eight thousand, your GPS thrown in.′
'Magic of technology. There′s a satellite watchin over you. Tells you where you are at any given time.′
'I usually know,′ said Cedric. He had no idea what Father O′Brannigan was talking about but it sounded vaguely religious.
The priest put a hand on Cedric′s shoulder. 'Well, son, I′ve done my best to save you from the mongrels. But Shane′s got another buyer wants this magnificent vehicle so you′ll have to get a wriggle on.′
Cedric hadn′t bargained for his savings vanishing at this speed, but he went back to the foreign exchange desk, got the money and handed it over. Then Shane gave him a driving lesson.
'Hop in,′ said Shane. 'Giveyafuckindrivinlesson.′
Driving the old A40 around Lower Roebuck had no more prepared Cedric for the troop carrier than riding a tricycle prepared a toddler to enter the Tour de France. During the lesson, and afterwards, Cedric thought that he would have nightmares about the experience for the rest of his life: the unnaturally bright daylight, the deafening noise of aircraft seemingly passing metres overhead, the bumper-to-bumper traffic, the near-collisions – four or five of them – the yellow monster stalling, the hooting and the rude shouting and the gesturing of fellow road users.
And, all the while, Shane shouting incomprehensible instructions about changing gear. Cedric had not known that a vehicle could have so many gears and in such a complicated arrangement. Changing them required standing on the clutch pedal to get it to the floor and desperately pushing the gear lever around in search of the right place. Often the stick went into the wrong notch, engaging the clutch brought a loss of power or a hideous scream from the engine. Shane would shout, Cedric would panic, stand on the clutch pedal, try another slot.
Usually that too was the wrong move: the same things happened or the vehicle jerked and the engine stalled.
The end finally came.
Father O′Brannigan and his parishioner departed. Seated side by side, they waved as their bright-red open convertible spun its wheels, left marks on the ground and the smell of burnt rubber.
Cedric was now alone, blinking rapidly, a middle-aged English schoolmaster sitting at least four feet above the greasy tarmac of an Australian airport parking lot, sitting behind the wheel of an old yellow troop carrier with many aerials and spotlights and a ladder to the roof and a steel barrier before it, designed to protect the machine and all who rode in it from the country′s suicidal fauna.
In his recent decisions, he thought, was there the possibility of some errors of judgement? Too late.
The wine is drawn, M. le Marquis...we must drink it.
Cedric studied the maps for a long time, plotted his course. Then he sat up straight, moved his shoulders, turned the key. The monster whined, shuddered into loud life. 'Oh Lord, make haste to save us,′ he said and stood on the clutch pedal.
THE FIRST PART of the journey was much worse than Cedric had believed possible. He was bound for a town called St Arnaud, about two hours′ drive from Melbourne, but he soon despaired of ever reaching it. Across the city′s freeways he blundered, always in the wrong lane, always taking the wrong exit, always in panic, hooted at, many drivers making rude finger gestures at him, their faces contorted with rage.
After what seemed like hours, a hopelessly lost Cedric found himself in a street of low brick houses without fences, trim lawns, a suburban backwater, nothing moving. It was a cul-de-sac with a big circle to turn in. He turned, drove a short distance, pulled to the kerb and switched off. 'Shit,′ he said, and put his head in his hands.
Knocking on the window.
Startled, Cedric looked into a face. He recoiled in fright, then realised it was an old woman wearing a knitted skullcap pulled down to where her eyebrows had once been.
She knocked again. He found the winder and rolled down the window.
'What′s wrong with you?′ she said.
'Ah, nothing,′ said Cedric. 'I′m just a bit, ah, lost. Yes. Lost.′
'Lost? How can you be lost?′
Cedric thought that she had remarkably good teeth, wash-basin white, for someone so ancient. 'Don′t know my way around,′ he said. 'I′m English.′
The woman stepped off the door platform, back to the pavement, retreated a few paces and looked at the troop carrier. Left, right, up, down. She was wearing mechanics′ overalls and she had a plastic bottle with a nozzle in her right hand.
'Pom,′ she said. 'Where′d ya get this vehicle?′
'A priest sold it to me,′ said Cedric. 'No, that′s not correct, the friend of a priest. Well, not so much his friend as one of his...′
The woman looked at him with eyes so knowing that Cedric felt no need to say any more. She knew that he was a complete idiot, she had known it from the moment he spoke his first word.
'Where ya goin?′ she said.
'In the first instance, a place called St Arnaud.′
Cedric repeated the name. The woman shook her head. He took the map book off the seat next to him, held it out the window and pointed at the dot that was St Arnaud. She came close and peered at the page.
'Snarnid,′ she said. 'Why didn′t ya say so?′
'Snarnid, yes,′ said Cedric. 'That′s the spot.′
'Hang on,′ said the woman. She turned and went up the driveway of the house.
Cedric wasn′t sure what to do. Perhaps she had gone inside to draw a map for him. Yes, that was what she was doing. How helpful. He felt much better. At least all the driving around was giving him the hang of it. He studied the street. Very neat. Not so much as a leaf or a twig or a scrap of paper to be seen. He hadn′t expected Australia to be like this.
The old woman came down the driveway. She was carrying a small suitcase and a long leather case. She went around the front of the troop carrier, just her headgear showing, opened the rear passenger door and put her bags in. Then she slammed the door, opened the front one and climbed in, fixed Cedric with her commanding gaze.
'Get movin,′ she said. 'Had enough of this place.′
Cedric obeyed, started the machine.
'Down to the corner, turn left, first right, keep goin. I′ll tell you what to do after that.′
With a profound sense of relief, Cedric did as he was told.
GUIDED BY THE curt commands of Mrs Dot McPhee, as she announced herself to be, they were on the freeway, heading west, in fewer than twenty minutes.
Cedric found himself in a mood he had not experienced since sitting on his grandfather′s lap on the small grey Massey Ferguson tractor. Up and down the field they had gone, ploughing the chocolate soil, Cedric′s hands on the bottom of the wheel, his grandfather′s at three and nine o′clock. From time to time, his grandfather took his hands away, put them on Cedric′s shoulders and Cedric was in charge of the machine, steering.
In charge but with grown-up support on hand.
That was the way he felt now, tooling down the highway in the massive vehicle, looking down on most of the traffic, windows open, Mrs Dot McPhee beside him with a small cigar in her mouth, knitting. She hadn′t asked him if he minded but that didn′t matter. He would have said no, that′s perfectly all right. It was all right. He rather liked the smell of her smoke.
'What′s ya business in Snarnid?′ she said.
Cedric told her about the need to see his late uncle′s solicitor in St Arnaud concerning the will.
'A will, eh?′ she said. 'Need ya wits about ya when it comes to wills.′
Cedric brooded. 'Why, exactly?′ he said.
Silence. Mrs McPhee′s smoke drifted past. 'Pass this bug,′ she said. 'Idiots clutterin up the road.′
Cedric did as he was told, overtook a small purple car, alarmed at the speed he had to reach. He sighed with relief when he could return to the left lane.
'Little Jap cars,′ she said. 'Made of tin.′
'Isn′t this a Japanese vehicle?′
'Cruisers are different,′ said Mrs McPhee. After a while, she said, 'Not exactly unknown for ya solicitor to be on the fiddle. Trade′s got more′n its fair share of shonks and shicers.′
Nothing more was said until they were approaching a town called Ballarat. 'Keep right,′ she said. 'Don′t have to go through this place, always rainin, mystery, like that Bermuda Hole.′
The sky was blue, cloudless. It could obviously change in an instant. A micro-zone of climatic instability. Cedric had heard about these places from Fiona Greentree, one of the science teachers at Gollop′s. Fiona asked him around for a drink once but, frightened by her moustache, he had made a very clumsy excuse and offended her.
'Gotta be careful with lawyers,′ said Mrs McPhee, reinforcing her point. 'Could be a shonk.′
'Shonk,′ said Cedric, trying out the word. He liked the sound.
It had everything you wanted in a short word: the sibilant opening, the consonants closing like a safe door slamming.
Shonk. Cedric said it to himself a few times. Shonk.
'Knew this fella, his nanna left him the house in Goondi. Bloody lawyer charged him more′n the place′s worth.′
'Charged him?′ said Cedric. It had not occurred to him that he would have to pay the solicitor.
'Charge like Mallee bulls, some of em.′
A vicious strain of bull bred by someone called O′Malley, the O lost at some point. An O′Malley would have surrendered the O to move up the pay queue. Cedric′s grandfather had told him of being in the army with a Patrick O′Dowd who became Dowd and jumped from near-last to near-first.
Malley bulls. Irascible animals, prone to charging. Did they have the running of the Malley bulls?
A signpost said St Arnaud was 40 km away.
'Will you be staying on in, um, Snarnid?′ said Cedric.
'Snarnid?′ said Mrs McPhee, opening her window and flicking out her stub. 'Gotta be mad to stay in Snarnid.′
They travelled in silence, Cedric thinking about what the staff of Gollop′s would think if they could see him in charge of this massive vehicle, cruising along this Australian highway, overtaking purple Japanese bugs, Dot McPhee′s needles clicking.
St Arnaud arrived. There was not a great deal to the place: houses with flaking paint and straggly gardens, a main street with shops that did not appear to be prospering, a war memorial of pitted volcanic stones topped by a piece of marble.
'What′s the address?′ said Mrs McPhee.
Cedric saw a long piece of unoccupied kerbside and eased the Cruiser in, hit the kerb, mounted it with two wheels, jerked the steering, returned to street level with a bump, stood on the brake pedal, stopped. He expelled all his breath loudly.
Not bad, he thought, all things considered. He looked at Mrs McPhee.
'Shoulda bin a hearse driver,′ she said. 'No danger to the passengers.′
Cedric found his papers and the address of Girton, Thomas & McGnarr, Barristers & Solicitors. 'Twenty-seven Napier Street,′ he said.
Mrs McPhee lowered her window and waited. An elderly man in a grey double-breasted suit came shuffling along the pavement. 'G′day, mate,′ she shouted. 'Where′s Napier Street?′
'What?′ said the man. 'What?′
'Napier Street,′ shouted Mrs McPhee.
'Yeah,′ said the man. 'What about it?′
'Well, where is it?′
The man came closer, inspected Mrs McPhee, peered at Cedric, stood back. 'Bloody innit,′ he said. 'What′s bloody wrong with you?′
'No need to swear,′ said Mrs McPhee. 'Be on your way.′
The man walked off, shaking his head.
'Want me to come with you?′ said Mrs McPhee.
Cedric was now seized with the fear that it was all a hoax, that he had made a terrible fool of himself. There was no inheritance. He had thrown away a secure job, spent huge amounts of money. He could be ruined. He would have to go home and live in the dank cottage, on the dole, grow his own food, starve.
'No thanks,′ he said. 'I think I can manage.′
'Don′t sign anythin. Tell em you need a think.′
'Yes.′ Cedric hesitated, uncertain whether to ask about her plans.
'I′ll be waitin,′ she said. 'Might get a few pies. Gotta be a half-decent pie in this place. I′ll ask around.′
'Fine. I enjoy a pie.′
'IF ONLY EVERYTHING in life were simple,′ said Bertrand Thomas, barrister and solicitor. He was a thin man of unguessable age with a deep cleft between his sprouting eyebrows.
'Indeed,′ said Cedric. 'In the matter of my uncle′s will, I′d like to know...′
'But it′s not simple,′ said Bertrand Thomas. 'The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.′ He eyed Cedric. 'All′s Well that Ends Well. You′d be familiar with the Bard, wouldn′t you, Mr Marchant?′
'To some extent. Not entirely.′
'Not in his entirety, you mean?′ said Thomas.
'Definitely not in his entirety.′
Cedric was no longer anxious. His anxiety had gradually lessened during his half-hour wait in a room with nothing to read except a publication called the Weekly Times. It had a picture of a cow on the front page and many mentions of something called dry sheep equivalent. Cedric brooded over what could be the equivalent of a dry sheep. Finally, the ancient horse-haired woman behind the desk responded to some silent signal and rose to open a door with BJ THOMAS BA LLB painted on it.
BJ Thomas now looked at the page in his hands. 'A teacher of English language and literature.′
'I am. I was. Well...′
'To teach English language and literature, you′d need to be pretty well up on the Bard, I imagine. A bit of an authority, really.′
Cedric coughed. 'There′s actually quite a lot of other writing in English,′ he said.
Thomas took on a narrow-eyed wolfish look. 'And well there might be, Mr Marchant,′ he said, 'but what′s it built on, what′s its foundation, man? Answer me that.′
Cedric couldn′t think of another foundation, couldn′t think of a single brick in any alternative foundation. 'You may have a point,′ he said. 'My uncle′s will...′
Thomas rose behind his desk and took up the declamatory position, hand on heart.
Farewell the plumed troop and the big wars
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
He stood silent, eyes on Cedric.
'Othello,′ Cedric said.
Thomas wasn′t pleased. 'All English writing since Shakespeare,′ he said, 'is a poor, halting postscript to the Bard. I quote no less a personage than Sir Morpeth Hardwicke QC.′
Cedric had never heard of Sir Morpeth Hardwicke QC but he sounded like old Mr Plowright at Gollop′s. Plowright thought Western history was a poor, halting imitation of what the Chinese had done. He credited the Chinese with discovering everything from toilet paper to nuclear power.
'Old hat,′ he said when someone in the staff room remarked on the news of a British breakthrough in gene technology, whatever that was. 'Chinese were manipulating genes by two-sixty BC. Earlier probably. Much earlier.′
'I have someone waiting outside,′ said Cedric. 'So if it′s possible...′
Thomas sat down. 'Yes, well, can′t sit around nattering about Shakespeare. To the matter at hand. Your identification, please, Mr Marchant.′
Cedric passed over his passport, his driver′s licence and an envelope containing a copy of his birth certificate. Thomas put on large glasses and made a show of examining them, holding them to the light from the dusty window. Cedric looked around the room. It was like the library of a Victorian mansion, piles of folders and document boxes on tables, dusty glass-fronted cupboards, shelves holding peeling leather-bound volumes. Two moulting stag heads looked on the room from the wall behind Bernard Thomas, and on a deep wooden windowsill stood a stuffed creature. Somewhere between a small bear and a large badger, thought Cedric.
'Apparently in order,′ Thomas said. 'Apparently.′
Cedric found that he was holding his breath. 'Well, that′s who I am,′ he said, short of air.
'Documents,′ said Thomas, 'can be obtained.′
'Yes,′ said Cedric. 'I obtained these.′
Thomas had another go. He held up the passport, looked at the photograph, studied Cedric over the top of it. Then he did the same with the driver′s licence. 'This could be anyone,′ he said.
'It didn′t look much like me when it was taken eight years ago,′ said Cedric. 'At least I didn′t think so. Although I suppose one isn′t much of a judge.′
Next the copy of the birth certificate. 'A copy,′ said Thomas. 'Could be unauthorised.′
Cedric found himself sighing. 'On the other side,′ he said, 'it′s been notarised.′
'Ah,′ said Thomas. He put on glasses. 'Well then, I will now read the last will and testament of Cyril Rodney Marchant, late of Orpheus Downs station, State of Victoria, Australia.′
It was a short document but Thomas made it last, pausing between words, stalling between sentences, meditating between paragraphs. Finally, he said, 'Do you understand the import of that, Mr Marchant?′
'Um, I have to live on the property for twelve months?′
'That is correct. You are to receive an allowance of five hundred dollars per calendar month from the estate for the period. As executor, it will be my duty to establish that you are in fact in residence throughout the aforesaid period. Short absences will be permitted. Longer absences will require my permission.′
Thomas took off the glasses and rubbed his eyes. 'Are you willing to abide by this condition, Mr Marchant?′
Cedric thought it didn′t seem like an onerous condition. A year on his outback station before he inherited it and the money. And then he might choose to stay on, round up the animals on horseback. He would have to learn to ride of course. He could start on a small horse, an older small horse. Perhaps a retired horse, small and placid. Gentle. Yes...
'I am,′ he said. 'When does it start?′
'Now, if that suits you.′
'It suits me, yes.′
Thomas opened a drawer and from within counted twenty fifty-dollar notes onto the desktop. 'We will begin with two months,′ he said. 'If you supply me with a bank account number, the allowance will thereafter be paid into the account.′ Pause. 'While I am satisfied that you are in residence.′
He pushed the stack of notes across the leather. 'An interesting man, your uncle,′ he said.
'His spelling wasn′t too good,′ said Cedric and regretted it.
'Yes. He wasn′t a bookish person. I suppose you know he narrowly escaped prison on a number of occasions.′
'Uncle Cyril?′ Cedric felt a tingle of alarm. 'I didn′t know.′
'Never out of trouble, really.′
'What kind of trouble?′
'Oh, prohibited substances, firearm charges, driving under the influence, goods believed to be stolen, arson. Attempted murder. And kidnapping. The prosecution dropped that early in the piece, though. She changed her story.′
Hesitant, bewildered, Cedric said, 'I somehow thought he was a farmer.′
Thomas looked around his chamber as if seeking something. 'Not a great deal of agricultural activity on Cyril′s property, Mr Marchant. Of a conventional kind.′
He rose, offered a hand like a plucked wood pigeon. 'Good luck,′ he said.
Cedric stood up and took the hand, determined to assert himself. He squeezed. The hand was cold. It was also hard. And it did not yield. He desisted instantly. Oh God, he thought, another handshake failure.
Then the hand squeezed him. Cedric thought his knuckles were collapsing, the pain went up his forearm.
Thomas released his grip. Cedric choked a sob of relief.
'Miss Smolett will give you a copy of the will and the inventory and a map,′ said Thomas. 'Goodbye.′
Cedric was at the door when he said, 'I take it your own affairs are in order, Mr Marchant.′
'I beg your pardon?′
'Your will, that sort of thing? Since you′re so far from home.′
'Of course,′ Cedric lied.
MRS McPHEE WAS in the Cruiser reading a paperback book and eating an apple. Cedric got behind the wheel.
'Well?′ she said. 'Well?′
'There′s this property,′ said Cedric, 'and I have to stay on it for a year.′
'What about yer inheritance?′
'I get it after the year. The property and the money and the...the belongings.′
'Shoulda come with you,′ she said. 'Sounds shonky to me. Where′s the place?′
'I′ve got directions.′
Cedric handed over the photocopied page from a map. Someone had circled a dot at the end of a thin snaking line.
Mrs McPhee whistled.
'Far from here?′ said Cedric tentatively. Despondency was descending.
'That′s about how far?′
Cedric thought he saw pity in Mrs McPhee′s antique gaze. 'Bout as far as you can go, goin that way.′
'Ah. That far.′
Cedric realised he had not eaten since the plane. How long ago that seemed. How safe and comfortable. He was ravenous, his belly was concave with hunger, he felt lightheaded. 'I am a little peckish,′ he said.
'Got us some pies. Lady at the op shop put me on the place.′
They ate their pies sitting on a bench in a small park outside the municipal offices. The ground was covered in dark pieces of bark. Mrs McPhee provided paper napkins and plastic cups from her bag. During his ingestion of pie number one, Cedric had to remind himself to chew before swallowing.
'Don′t know pastry from a pig′s bum,′ said Mrs McPhee, handing him another pie. 'But not bad for a town like this.′
Cedric nodded, bit. He was slowing down and his spirits were improving. After a bout of chewing and some milk, he said, 'My uncle seems to have been a bit of a character.′
Mrs McPhee gave him the eye. 'What kind of character?′
'In trouble with the law a lot.′
'What, out there?′
'Dunno how they′d notice. Wouldn′t be a copper in cooee.′
Was that the nearest town to his uncle′s property? Cooee. Cedric liked the sound of it. 'Cooee,′ he said. 'Cooee.′
Mrs McPhee looked at him with one eye narrowed, swallowed the last of her pie. 'You all right?′
'Why isn′t there a copper in Cooee?′
She recognised his ignorance. 'No, no, not a place. Cooee. It′s a sound. Hear it to buggery.′
Mrs McPhee made a trumpet with her hands: 'COOOEEEE. COOOEEEE.′
The thin vibrating sounds went up and down the street, freezing the few pedestrians in mid-stride.
'From the war,′ said Mrs McPhee, 'the first one.′
Cedric thought that there was much more to learn about this country than he wanted to learn. And he was far from sure that he wanted that learning to include travelling a great distance into the parched interior and spending months there, alone.
Alone. He was no stranger to being alone. He was alone at home in Lower Roebuck. He could handle being alone. He had been alone all his adult life, really. It wasn′t a problem.
Alone in Australia? On a property hundreds of miles from anywhere?
That was not quite the same thing as being alone in Pringle Lane, Lower Roebuck.
On Orpheus Downs, there would be no nipping down to the village to buy a few pork bangers from Bertie Stockton or a loaf of bread and a carton of milk from the surly Mrs Bull at the shop.
Alone. He would be quite alone in a strange land. Cedric shivered. This was the time to make an excuse and go home.
Mrs McPhee stood, crushed the brown paper bag in both hands, rolled it tight. 'Well, let′s get goin,′ she said. 'Be long dark before we get there.′
A cloak of relief draped itself over his tense shoulders. He would not be alone. In the short term at least, there would be Mrs Dot McPhee.
They were walking when Mrs McPhee spun on a heel and kicked the balled bag back. It travelled four metres, hung in the air, dropped into the dead centre of the litter bin.
'How do you do that?′ said Cedric, consumed with admiration.
'Practice,′ she said. 'Talent and practice. We need supplies. Flour, yeast, tea, sugar, that kind of thing. Should be a bit of meat out there. Your burrow chooks. Live off the land.′
'Right,′ said Cedric. 'Live off the land.′
THREE HOURS FROM St Arnaud, Cedric saw the body from a great distance. 'My Lord,′ he said.
'Give him a lift,′ said Mrs McPhee.
'Just nappin. Stop.′
'Does he want a lift?′
'Course he does.′
Cedric knew all about Britons being murdered on the back roads of Australia. 'Is it, um, safe?′
'Don′t be silly,′ said Mrs McPhee.
He slowed the Cruiser to walking pace before he edged onto the shoulder. Outside St Arnaud he had found out what happened when you put two wheels on the gravel at speed. For a terrible moment he thought that they were going to die hanging upside-down in a flaming wreck.
Cedric stopped about twenty metres beyond the man. In the rear-view mirror, he saw him get up. Then a shock of ammoniac-sour wind rocked the Cruiser, bringing tears to Cedric′s eyes. When he opened them, he saw a B-double sheep transport disappearing over the rise.
The man was at the window. He was tall and thin, sallow-skinned, somewhere north of fifty, his mouth marked off by deep cuttings. An impossibly battered hat was pulled low.
'Good afternoon,′ Cedric said. 'May we offer you a lift?′
'Decent of you,′ the man said in a deep, ruined voice.
He walked around the Cruiser, opened the passenger-side back door, put in a canvas-covered roll and a guitar case and got in. 'Name′s Oliver,′ he said. 'Greg Oliver.′
'Dot,′ said Mrs McPhee. 'Where ya goin?′
'Same way you′re going,′ said the man.
'Drop me when you turn off.′
'Headin for the scrub, us,′ said Mrs McPhee.
Cedric had to wait for three trucks to go by before he could get the Cruiser back on the road. Then he had to worry about a truck tailgating him.
A hillock arrived, a mere incline. Cedric put his foot down, left the truck standing. He felt relieved and more than a little smug.
Mrs McPhee punched the radio, fiddled with the controls. Classical music filled the vehicle – Beethoven.
'Happy with this?′ she said.
'I′m very happy,′ said Cedric, thinking of home. He listened to classical music on the BBC every night, tucked up in his bed with a book and a mug of hot milk and honey.
'Me?′ said Oliver. 'Don′t have to ask me.′
'All in here together.′
'Then I′m happier than I can say.′
With Beethoven and Brahms, Schubert and Mozart, Mahler and Chopin, they drove through the day and into the encircling gloom. They passed through towns that grew smaller and more desperate – one street, a pub, a few pinch-faced people, an old dog or two. When, in the last light, they stopped at a settlement that was just a garage flanked by two sagging houses, Mrs McPhee had to knock on the garage′s dirty glass door, go around the back. She returned with a man in a dressing-gown who unlocked a pump and filled the Cruiser without saying a word.
At 7 pm, Mrs McPhee ordered a stop and produced cheese and tomato sandwiches and three bottles of Victoria Bitter.
'Kind of you,′ said Oliver. He had a snowline across his forehead where his hat sat.
'Extra sanger never goes wasted,′ said Mrs McPhee. 'Dry around here.′
'Not godzone, no,′ said Oliver.
'Bin this way before?′ said Mrs McPhee.
'Not that I can remember. But there′s lots I don′t remember.′
'There was the drink,′ said Oliver. 'And the drugs.′
Mrs McPhee gave him a look and a few nods.
They set off again. Oliver went to sleep, his head on his canvas roll. Mrs McPhee gave directions, reading a map on her lap by a dashboard light. As they approached a crossroads just beyond a dark farmhouse, she said, 'Stop.′
Cedric pulled over. Oliver sat up instantly, wide awake.
'Turnin off here,′ said Mrs McPhee to Oliver. 'Not much chance of lifts after this.′
'Don′t need lifts,′ said Oliver. 'I like a walk.′
'Left,′ said Mrs McPhee to Cedric. 'There′s Turnback Creek, be a coupla shacks, and then, far as I kin work it out, it′s first right after that. Sign should say Home Rule Road.′
'Ireland,′ said Mrs McPhee. 'You Poms bin oppressin the poor bloody Irish for centuries. Of Scottish descent myself.′
Cedric thought himself innocent of oppressing the Irish but made no comment, drove. He seemed to have sand in his eye sockets, the skin on his face felt tight, he had a headache, his shoulders and his forearms ached, and a dull pain in his right ankle was moving up the calf.
It took another forty-five minutes and the clock on the dashboard said 11.47 when they passed through Turnback Creek. There was no discernible creek but more than a couple of shacks. A dozen or so shops and a pub stood dark.
Five kilometres out of town, a sign said Home Rule Ro. The end of the sign appeared to have been shot off. After four dead-straight kilometres, the Cruiser′s headlights lit up tree-trunk gateposts at least three metres high. A rusted arch of welded steel bridged them. Cedric could make out the remains of letters – an initial O, the top of a P, the bottom of a U, a D, most of an N and the middle of an S.
'What′s the place called?′ said Mrs McPhee.
'Orpheus Downs,′ said Cedric.
Cedric jolted over a cattle grid and drove down a long rutted avenue of gum trees. It curved and the headlights passed over tin sheds of all sizes and then revealed a huge ramshackle house with a deep veranda. He stopped on the packed-dirt forecourt.
'Someone livin here,′ said Mrs McPhee. 'The lawyer say that?′
'No,′ said Cedric. 'How do you know?′
'I kin feel it. Hoot.′
Cedric hooted, a surprisingly feeble sound. Nothing happened.
'Reverse a bit, switch off the lights, keep the engine runnin.′
Cedric backed up five or six metres, cut the headlights. The world went black. They sat in silence, the diesel thumping. Then Mrs McPhee reached up.
'Look over the right,′ she said.
Cedric looked into the darkness. Mrs McPhee clicked some-thing.
Pure white light violated the inside of a tin shed. For an instant, Cedric saw something.
A face. Pale as a lily.
THEY GOT OUT, the spotlight on the shed entrance. Oliver leaned against the Cruiser, yawned. Mrs McPhee came around the front of the vehicle and advanced towards the shed, a small and slightly bandy-legged figure.
'Come out, dear!′ she shouted. 'Nothin to be scared of.′
They waited. Cedric became aware of a cold wind pushing his hair. It smelled of something. He sniffed and the connection came: his old gardening jumper, never washed and holding in its fibres the smell of every autumn bonfire until the practice became frowned upon.
'Come on then!′ shouted Mrs McPhee. 'Don′t muck about, girl.′
The face appeared at the left of the opening, an anoraked woman with dark hair pulled back, squinting against the glare. 'Whaddaya want?′ she shouted.
Mrs McPhee looked over her shoulder at Cedric. 'Tell her who you are,′ she said.
'Who am I?′ said Cedric.
'You′re the owner of this property.′
'Yes. I am. In a sense. I will be. All things being...yes. I am.′
'Come over here and tell her,′ said Mrs McPhee.
Cedric advanced into the light, eyes on the woman. She looked frail, unwell. 'I am the, ah, owner of this property,′ he said. 'Since my uncle′s death. I am the owner.′
'Who′s your uncle?′ said the woman.
'Cyril Marchant. He owned this.′
'I beg your pardon?′
'The old bloke. Sailor.′
'Well, he was a sailor once.′
The woman turned her head, offered her hands. 'Come, it′s okay.′
Two children in pyjama-like clothing appeared, different heights, both long-haired. They took her hands.
'Why you hidin?′ said Mrs McPhee.
The woman looked away, her hair flicked. 'Bit nervy,′ she said. 'Just me and the kids here.′
'What′s your name?′
'Doin what here?′
Mrs McPhee turned to Cedric. 'Squatters on yer land,′ she said.
Cedric looked at the threesome, motionless in the icy light: a tall adult and two small ginger-headed children, all blinking, standing stiffly.
'I′d love a cup of tea,′ he said, tired beyond endurance. 'Perhaps we could sort this out in the morning?′
'How many bedrooms in there?′ said Mrs McPhee to the woman.
'Heaps. Like five, six, I dunno.′
Mrs McPhee put back her head, tilted it in an inquiring way. 'Dogs?′ she said.
'How come they′re quiet?′
'Boy can keep em quiet.′
'Let em go.′
'Big one′ll rip your heart out.′
'Let em go,′ said Mrs McPhee.
'Ben,′ said the woman.
A slight figure appeared at the right of the doorway, curly hair on his shoulders. He held three dogs on leashes, straining but silent. The one in the middle was table-high, head like a petrol can. The others could pass beneath it without touching.
The big dog showed its canines: boar tusks.
Cedric said, 'They don′t look friendly, I think.′
'Just dogs,′ said Mrs McPhee. 'Let em go, son.′
The boy bent, unclipped the big dog. It came at them, all open mouth and gleaming hog teeth.
Cedric was returning to the Cruiser at maximum speed when he heard Mrs McPhee say, 'Good dog, SIT!′
He did not look until he had almost reached the Cruiser. Then, shamed by the way Oliver was leaning against the bonnet and smoking a cigarette, he stopped and turned.
Mrs McPhee was standing over the big dog. It was seated and trying to lick her hand. The smaller dogs had also arrived and were dancing around trying to get her attention. She turned her head.
'Pull it up next to the house, Ceddy,′ she said. 'Let′s get the swags out and have a cup of tea and a bikkie.′
CEDRIC DREAMT HE had fallen into a giant bin and was being buried alive in old clothes that smelled overpoweringly of camphor. He awoke in sweat and panic.
He was on his back, sunk in a mattress, impressed in it.
A shaft of sunlight from an uncurtained window went to a wall a good five metres away, to the base of a bookshelf whose upper reaches were in darkness.
He fought his way out of the mattress′s clutches and put feet on the floor. No feeling in his feet. Oh God, some antipodean virus. He looked down. Shoes. He was wearing his good leather shoes, the once-bright toecaps now dull and a little scuffed.
He had been too scared to go to sleep with bare feet. He had sat on the edge of the bed and thought about the possibility of an emergency in the night, something that could call for quick action. Indeed, flight.
Cedric felt shame. He had slept with his shoes on, afraid to be caught bare of foot.
'The foot,′ said Mr Plowright one morning in the common room, pitilessly observing the gym mistress hopping into the room with a foot in plaster. 'Most neglected body part, the foot.′
'Usually found in matched pairs,′ said Mr Carstairs, the science teacher, not raising his eyes from a paperback with a gold swastika embossed on the cover.
'Ignored until it′s too late,′ said Mr Plowright.
'Not by the Chinese though, I′ll be bound,′ said Mr Carstairs and laughed, sniggered, really.
But for the violence of the pigeons on the roof, there was a silence so deep that when Plowright ran an index finger across his brutally disciplined moustache, Cedric could hear the knife-sharpening sound.
'How silly a wordplay, Carstairs,′ said Plowright. 'You epitomise British society. Under-educated and insular. A dim light in a small room.′
'A dim light should be enough for a small room, shouldn′t it?′ said Carstairs.
'So proving my point ad unguem,′ said Plowright.
Keeping his shod feet on the floor, Cedric lay back on the mattress. It claimed him like quicksand, but now in a comforting way. He studied the ceiling. It was a shade of pink, with dark patches where bits of plaster had fallen off. He saw a woman′s face, just an eye and a nostril and a fall of hair. And breasts, not the same size. Big breasts.
He felt removed from the world. He was certainly removed from the world of the Gollop School and the cottage in Lower Roebuck. Not insular he, not any longer.
What did ad unguem mean? Was he under-educated too? Well, he′d tried to be educated. He was probably the most educated Marchant of his line. But what did educated actually mean? Knowing about China? About the postmodern English novel? Latin? How much did you have to know before you were sure you were educated?
Dogs barking, on the veranda. He turned his head and dimly saw the big animal looking at him through the windowpane its breath was fogging.
In the sitting room, by the light of a gas lamp, Mrs McPhee had interrogated the pale woman. Erin′s smaller children pressed themselves to her like leeches, the boy ignored the proceedings, sat on a cracked leather sofa and tried to pick out a tune on a guitar with two missing strings. Oliver had taken his tea outside.
'How′d you get here, Erin?′ said Mrs McPhee.
'Came with these blokes. Vern and Starrey. And this girl. Donna. Yeah.′
'Came from where?′
'Met em in Sydney. Met Vern and he said there′s this place we can stay, be a good place for the kids. In the country like. So we came here. Didn′t know it was gonna be this. Back of buggery. Yeah.′
'How long ago?′
'Four months. Near that. Yes. Kids should be in school.′
'And where are these blokes now?′
'Took off. About a month ago. Goin on. Just got up one mornin and Vern, he said, goin to town, see ya later. They done that before but they came back in a week or so. Yeah.′
'That′s enough yeah,′ said Mrs McPhee. 'And the girl?′
'Went off with em the first time, she never came back. Didn′t miss her, I can tell you.′
'No one here when you arrived?′
'No,′ said Erin. 'Vern said Sailor didn′t mind people stayin here. Generous old bloke. Yeah. Sorry.′
Mrs McPhee got up and prowled around the room, stretching her arms above her head, fingers interlocked. 'So,′ she said. 'These little ones, they got a dad?′
The boy stopped picking at the guitar.
'No,′ said Erin. 'He drowned. Fishin. This Christmas four years.′ She was about to say yeah when she caught herself.
'Livin off soup and baked beans here the last two weeks,′ said Erin. 'There′s like twenty boxes of soup packets. Just mushroom and tomato.′
'Town′s not far,′ said Mrs McPhee.
Erin wouldn′t look at her. 'Got no money,′ she said.
'What about the pension? Bein a single mum.′
'Don′t want the pension.′
Cedric had not been able to keep his head up or his eyes open. 'I think I might toddle off to bed,′ he said. 'Find somewhere to toddle off to.′
'Give us a tour, Erin,′ said Mrs McPhee. 'Got any candles?′
'LOOKIN TO HAVE a hot shower?′ said Mrs McPhee. 'Somethin wrong with the boiler. Doesn′t get water from the tank. I kin tell you nothin much works in this place.′
Cedric looked into the bathroom. He could see a yellowish cast-iron bath and, above it, a shower rose the size of a dustbin lid. There was a loud noise from the roof, then a series of clangs.
'Ollie′s up there,′ said Mrs McPhee.
'Does he know much about plumbing?′
'We′ll see. No knowing what he knows.′ She went into the room and turned on a shower tap. Nothing happened.
A faint keening sound grew, accompanied by serious hammering in the pipes.
'Ah,′ said Mrs McPhee.
Water descended from the shower like a small rust cloud bursting.
'Could know somethin about plumbing, Ollie,′ said Mrs McPhee. She closed the tap. 'Get out there and fire up the boiler.′
Cedric obeyed. He found the boiler in a room off the veranda. It was a massive riveted thing that could supply a hotel. He could hear water running into it. Firewood was stacked against a wall. He got to work balling copies of the Inland Guardian from a pile in a cardboard box.
'What you doing?′
It was the boy, Ben, tentative.
'Making a fire,′ said Cedric. The date on the second paper was 12 May 1997. Did hot water stop around then?
'So that we can have a hot shower. Should we wish to do so.′ He opened the boiler door. The ash inside was at least a foot deep. He took a piece of wood and poked around until he could see the grate. He put paper on top of it. 'Pass me some of those twigs,′ he said.
'The small branches.′
Ben handed him kindling. 'Mum hots water on the barbie,′ he said. 'Have to wash with a rag.′
'This will be an improvement,′ said Cedric. 'See any matches?′
The boy found a box with three matches in it.
'Very small margin for error,′ said Cedric. He opened the bottom door. 'Going to need all the oxygen we can get.′
'You talk a bit funny,′ said the boy.
'Really? Here goes.′
The match snapped at the head. 'Situation perilous,′ said Cedric.
The second match fizzled glumly, died. 'Now desperate.′
Match three flared. The paper and twigs ignited like rocket fuel. 'An inflammatory organ, the Inland Guardian,′ said Cedric. 'Hand me some larger pieces.′
It took fifteen minutes to get a big enough fire going, the boy silently handing over wood. Cedric closed the door and stood and became aware that Oliver was leaning against the doorpost, adjustable wrench in hand. Leaning seemed to be his natural stance, he could probably lean without support.
'Good work on the plumbing,′ said Cedric. 'Excellent work.′
'Losing my head for heights,′ said Oliver. 'Inner-ear thing.′
'I thought that was balance.′
'That′s right,′ said Oliver. 'What′s your name, boy?′
The boy looked down. Cedric thought he saw a shiver in him.
'Ten.′ He didn′t look up.
'Man of the family?′
'Dad not with you?′
'He′s dead. He drowned.′
'Sorry to hear that. Lost my dad when I was your age, bit older.′
'Did he drown?′
'No, he shot himself. Well, shower time. Got the boiler in the shearers′ quarters going. Christ knows when that last happened.′
'You might want to tell your mother there is now water that is hot,′ said Cedric. 'Hot and running.′
'Mum′s pretty scared,′ said Ben.
Scared was a terrible word, a child should not speak it. 'Why′s that?′ he said.
'We got nowhere to go.′
Cedric thought about this. These people had no right to be on his land. They had no right to be on the place when it was his uncle′s. It was like coming home from France and finding a family inhabiting his house in Lower Roebuck.
'Tell her not to worry,′ he said. 'You can stay here if you like.′