Fiction

The ends of the earth

LASTING A GOOD part of a minute, the sound was akin to the roar of two hundred horse carriages furiously ridden over cobblestones, writes James Palmer, surveyor of the newest southern colony, in January 1839. I made inquiries of one of the natives who indicated there have been previous earthquakes of similar nature in these parts. However, it was impossible to ascertain their frequency or severity, were I to believe him.

I frown beneath the shuddering roof of the tent, wondering if the earthquake has struck the area my husband, the surveyor, and his men have been engaged to map. I remain pinned to the bed, blinking at the dark, listening. Dogs are barking. People call out. Some have lit lamps with which to inspect the tents, the provisions store and the newly laid foundations of the hospital. Slowly I reach for the Bible I keep wrapped in a white linen cloth with my diary. And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.

I will myself to think of how best to instruct the cook to roast the spatchcock for Sunday dinner, when the Reverend Merton will read a prayer and eat a good portion of stuffing and most of the bird, before retiring to his tent with bottle and pen.

But this is something I cannot shut out. The sound of this strange country shrugging us off.

My thoughts rush far ahead. I think of my unborn child. Of my child's children and their children. Will they continue to take part in this extraordinary experiment and make their lives here? James would think me foolish but I can sense their little souls about me now, a long luminous stream of family threading down the years.

James? Can you hear it? The fluttering of hearts? The trembling breath?

 

MY HEART. MY breath. This trembling. For the past year, I've watched my illness circling. Now it has begun its approach, like a figure shambling across a paddock, almost recognisable in its shape and gait, the face remaining out of sight. Now it has lodged itself inside me.

My daughter took me to see a neurologist yesterday. He sat in his spotted bow tie, making pronouncements over steepled hands. My daughter promised wine and cake. In our family, wine and cake always means something's up.

To stop her pleading, I lied. Yes, I said, spilling a little rosé over the tablecloth. Yes, I will give up my final pleasure. The daily visits to the State Library, where I've been immersing myself in the accounts of my great-great-grandfather James Palmer and comparing these to the private diaries of my great-great-grandmother, kept in a Sandler shoebox beneath my bed.

I couldn't tell my daughter that it's impossible to surrender any more of myself. Too much has been taken. Too much has been lost.

All this has been building. An inventory of omissions and mistakes. The empty pantry. The odd vine snaking its way inside. The discovery of that wad of unpaid bills. Then last week's visit to the library, when I tried to bring Palmer's papers home to reunite them with the diaries of his wife, carefully tucking them inside my coat, feigning amnesia when the woman on the desk cheerfully pointed out my little oversight.

There's one of his entries I particularly like: he's wading eye-high through reeds along the River Torrens to the cries and grunts of waterfowl. He's been looking for a place for his men to cross. Two chains, he surmises, at its narrowest point. He wipes his face. Sweat has been creeping like a beetle across his brow. The ink in his notebook has begun to blur beneath his thumb. For a moment, the blinding sun is completely eclipsed by a deafening flock of parakeets.

Then he sees it. Black eyes in the grass, to the left on the rise. His breath pulls in sharp. His hand goes to the musket. But no. It's only the face of old man kangaroo, chest pushed out between the white curve of shoulders. The kangaroo stares, waits for Palmer's party to thrash on past.

 

I WONDER IF the land James is surveying has also settled back into silence with the coming of daylight. I rise from my bed and exchange pleasantries with Doctor Myles, who has weathered another busy night. I hesitate by the tent door, watching men mending canvas, attending to a broken cart wheel and severing the limbs of a leaning tree. I steel myself with my Bible: The earth quaked and the rocks were split. Then my diary: Thursday evening, parakeet pie. Followed by: One of the foremen, Ambrose Asquith, cut his own throat on the Sabbath and was found by his son in a water-filled ditch. The wretched man was known to Doctor Myles who had ministered to him during previous bouts of falling sickness. There is unpleasant talk of drinking and debts and a wife with child.

AS I TAKE out my great-great-grandmother's diary from beneath the bed, I notice my own handwriting scrawled across the shoebox lid: For donation to the State Library in the event of my death.

In the event of being old, infirm, an invalid, doctors speak through my daughter, rarely to me. It was suggested I take an assortment of pills. Do they think I don't realise I am old? I tried to tell the doctor it's not the pills or even forgetting which bus I might be on. I know I'm old, because I've been drawn rather urgently to try to know the lives of my ancestors. To find my place beside the river before wading in.

Who were these people who came to this place in slow, stinking ships with futures as large as the land they intended to open up, cutting and burning, digging and ploughing, sowing new worlds with the ideas of home?

Just when I think I've begun to know them, they become unfamiliar. Often I'm aware of their presence as I read their words. It makes me anxious but it's also comforting. I wonder if they're aware of me.

I may be here alone living in a tent oppressed by all sorts of hardships in this strange land, but when James returns I will place his hand across my growing belly and he will smile as he feels the future there.

When I still enjoyed a greater proportion of better days, nobody cared if I caught the bus to the library with a thermos of tea and a box of shortbread and sat at the whirring microfilm machine. Throughout my husband's busy academic life, then his illness and long, bitter death, everybody admired me. You're so capable, they said. Adaptive. Generous. But now I'm watched. Managed. Cajoled. I have to dart out early to hail a bus. And then I have to sit among the spiky grasses beside the State Library in the smell of urine and last night's drink, as homeless men roll up their plastic sheets and unzip their tattered bags full of nothing, full of everything, begging a few coins or cigarettes, to the stares of the early morning pageant of city workers marching past.

After half-past nine the once aloof and peaceful realms of the library fill with people cramming backpacks into lockers, rattling coins into slot machines, tapping away at miniature screens. Unlike the house, where the heavy furniture of my past life has begun to stifle me. I like the ever changing theatre here.

With no fixed goal, I always find what I need by padding along the shelves, opening random books, rifling through newspapers, leaflets and ships' logs, exclaiming and often weeping as my increasingly tremulous fingers move down columns of ant-sized font noting reports of people born, murdered, loved, feted, ridiculed or despised.

I have found from experience it's best to avoid Genealogy. There's always some talkative soul lying in wait, bursting with details of their family history, as if their family was the only one to exist. When you're old people assume you have plenty of time, when the point is that you don't.

I've been working hard on this final project, culminating in a substantial letter to the editor of a national newspaper, the finishing-off of an old argument batted back and forth between me and my late husband about the realisation that it is we humans who are to blame for the decline and ravaging of the natural world.

I can hear him now tut-tutting at my shoulder. See? I reply. See, dear? I understand the arguments more clearly now. Even though you are ever the professor and I am the wife, I've been at the library boning up. Take this 1850s edition of the Gardeners' Gazette, for instanceWhile some ‘scientific men' still claim that rain follows the plough, others say no, not in these parts where summer is brown and the winters rarely green. More letters to the Gazette's editor rail against the clearfelling of trees. We must not allow men to make the same mistakes as in the Americas, writes one Thos. Mitchell in July 1856. We must make pains to heed the experience of the other colonies where the soil has suffered when the forests were cleared of all of her verdancy. Again, in the Herald, July 1899, a letter warning against the wanton deforestation of this great, fair land as a precautionary measure against the very probable diminution of natural rainfall.

I construct and dismantle my arguments as I wait for sleep. I'm thirsty, itchy. My mouth feels stiff, as if I've made a rude face and the wind has changed.

Is it possible to know how it felt when those first white gentlewomen were brought out here, to the ends of the earth? Even with diaries and the occasional letter, can we understand what went through a gentlewoman's mind as she placed a slipper in the South Australian dust, a clutch of hot clothes at her waist?

Perhaps she smiled as the eyes of labouring men traversed the coastline of her summer dress. Men who'd been left dangerously long without adequate work, food or pay due to the ineptitudes of the British government. Was it a relief to know there were no convicts here – just a slice of so-called free society apparently devoid of religious persecution, imbued with new ideas of self-sufficiency, an open-ended gamble in a huge and ancient place?

‘But the sky,' the gentlewoman might have gasped. How would she survive such bright, hard light?

WHILE IT IS true that James warned there would be few women of my kind in the colony, I had not quite understood he would vanish so regularly for weeks on end to survey the great beyond, compiling important field notes for the Surveyor General, studying the clay beds and pink quartzite cliffs, and perhaps finding pleasure and power in the warmth and sport of darker flesh.

James?

I am not ashamed to admit I often speak his name in his absence.

It was well over a hundred degrees, I write in my diary. It is far better to tell of simple, familiar things. We hung the hams from our tents and the Reverend Merton read psalms, and we raised our make-believe glasses to King and Country, having lost most of the glassware when the trunk was dropped on disembarkation. James and I intended to mark the Christmas occasion with as much spirit as was possible.

 

I AM ALSO lying in my bed with as much spirit as is possible, listening to the ship-like creaking of the house. For some hours I'd been trying to read one of my husband's favourite books, The Myths of Greece and Rome, but I became overpowered by the labyrinthine parables and their savage imagery.

Suddenly I hear it: a rumble. It begins as a whispering, a chattering. The fidgeting of furniture. Paintings rattling against the walls. Books jostling along the shelves. The bedside light flickering on and off. Is it an earthquake?

I stagger from the bed, perhaps to the appalling sound of Surveyor Palmer's two hundred horse carriages rocketing over cobblestones. Or is it Enceladus, the giant punished by Jupiter to lie beneath the weight of Mount Etna, bound forever with adamantine chains? Poor Enceladus, forever turning in his lair, sending up great shots of molten fire to shake the tender plates of the earth.

Adam-an-tine? I know the word – I have read it somewhere else recently.

I feel my way downstairs, trying not to trip over the things scattered across the floor. I prise open a kitchen cupboard to discover the cups and saucers have been dancing together and now lie intermingled in jagged heaps.

I light the gas, heat a little milk, then sit down on the cold, hard floor. What luck! A scrap of blank paper and a runaway pen. James has given me the duty of arranging a reception in honour... What is that appalling noise? Just the fire alarm again, screeching overhead. The milk pot is spuming, brown with fire.

 

JAMES HAS GIVEN me the duty of arranging a reception in honour of the arrival of the new Governor and his wife; hence I am in charge of the decorations, the supper provisions, the guest list, the musical entertainment. At last, more of life's necessities have arrived: another piano, kale and cabbage and river bean seeds, a selection of wines and, mercifully, letters and books; also, bolts of woollen cloth as the winter will arrive surprising chill, an oak dining table and chairs, herds of much needed cattle and flocks of sheep driven in from the east, and scores of impoverished married men and women, hungry for opportunity.

I venture a small smile at the sky. There is much to do. Doctor Myles has asked me to visit a labouring man's wife, Mrs Ambrose Asquith, who has given birth to a girl a week after the poor husband extinguished himself.

I duck my hat as I enter the tent. I expect – but am still shocked by – the smell. I sit by the Asquith woman in the sorry little tent, watching the grey curves beneath her eyes, the red dots spreading and then receding across her face. I wipe her doughy wrist, then take up the baby and stare at its eyes. The child lies unmoving in the crook of my arm, its mouth separated from my swelling breast by three layers of damp cloth.

Eventually I hand the baby back, informing Mrs Asquith that I must see to the reception for the new Governor.

The evening air is still stifling. The sky remains orange behind black trees.

The reception must be a resounding success, so no one will remember that the previous Governor was recalled to Britain under a cloud. James has suggested that the new Governor's wife shall become a great friend, there still being a shortage of certain kinds of women in these parts.

The sky has been orange for at least an hour. How these southern sunsets scald and sear the night. At first there was no sign of the new Governor and his lady wife, but we soon learned they had been sighted.

We wait in the yellow square of light thrown out from the door of the makeshift hall. A note arrives. Regrettably, the Governor has been detained. Somebody stays the violins. Food has begun to wilt on plates.

When the Governor finally appears, he is red and swaying. One look at the Governor's wife and I know she and I will not be friends. Her china-doll face; her furious eyes.

‘The heat,' the Governor's wife says at last.

‘I trust your Excellency's belongings arrived in an agreeable state?'

No answer.

‘I trust...'

Nothing. Stillness in every eye and mouth. Then a sigh, long and loud. The Governor's voice booms. He smells of rum. And still the bawdy dusk refuses to fall.

The airless dark brings no relief from the day's heat. I lie wrestling with my sinful conscience, especially the duty of looking in on the Asquith woman thrice daily. Of course I will go tomorrow, to pat a fresh cloth to her face and filthy hands, but I will not note it in my diary when she clutches at me and cries, ‘It was like a thousand bees had stung my heart, missus, when my little boy found my husband face-down in the ditch.' Nor will I mention giving my agreement when she said the nights were so dark and the towpaths so wet. Down by the ditch where the cold water glitters and the winds sing out softly, calling you in.

 

I AM ALSO in bed wrestling with my conscience. I look over to see my late husband's book of myths on the floor. Adam-an-tine. No. That's not the word I've seen somewhere.

Look. Here, on the labels of my collection of unopened pills. A-man-ta-dine. I've been squirrelling them away with the diaries in the shoebox for ‘the event'.

As I reach over for my glass and gulp down a handful of the pills, a trail of water rains down, darkening, expanding then disappearing like tiny footprints across the sheets.

Over there, the fat yellow envelope addressed to The Editor, The Australian.

Outside, another unrepentant morning sun. But if we lie here very quietly, we might see the sky blackening with flocks of parakeets. The gouged, parched hills might bristle with saplings. The great rivers might begin to run again, tumbling through the thirsty earth. And the cool wind will carry voices of loved ones long dead. 

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