A Boat Load of Home Folk

BOOK: A Boat Load of Home Folk
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Allen & Unwin's House of Books aims to bring Australia's cultural and literary heritage to a broad audience by creating affordable print and ebook editions of the nation's most significant and enduring writers and their work. The fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry of generations of Australian writers that were published before the advent of ebooks will now be available to new readers, alongside a selection of more recently published books that had fallen out of circulation.

The House of Books is an eloquent collection of Australia's finest literary achievements.

Thea Astley was born in Brisbane in 1925 and studied at the University of Queensland. She taught in schools in Queensland and New South Wales, then at Macquarie University in Sydney between 1968 and 1980.

The author of fourteen novels, two novellas and two short-story collections, she won the Miles Franklin Award four times, for
The Well Dressed Explorer
(1962),
The Slow Natives
(1965),
The Acolyte
(1972) and
Drylands
(2000), which was also nominated for the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow
was nominated for the 1997 Miles Franklin Award, and in 1989 she was awarded the Patrick White Award for services to Australian literature. In 1992 she became an Officer in the Order of Australia, and received a special award at the 2002 NSW Premier's Literary Awards for lifetime achievement. She died in 2004.

HOUSE
of
 BOOKS

THEA
ASTLEY
A Boat Load of
Home Folk

This edition published by Allen & Unwin House of Books in 2012
First published by Angus & Robertson in 1968

Copyright © Thea Astley 1968

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian
Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.

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Cataloguing-in-Publication details are available from the National Library of Australia
www.trove.nla.gov.au

ISBN 978 1 74331 562 0 (pbk)
ISBN 978 1 74343 309 6 (ebook)

contents

I
       7 a.m., 10th December

II
      September

III
     8 a.m., 10th December

IV
     8 a.m., 10th December

V
      November

VI
     8.15 a.m., 10th December

VII
    1 p.m., 10th December

VIII
   4 p.m., 10th December

IX
     7 p.m., 10th December

X
      3.30 p.m., 10th December

XI
     3 a.m., 11th December

XII
    3 a.m., 11th December

XIII
   7 a.m., 11th December

XIV
   9 a.m., 12th December

  
I

7 a.m., 10th December

T
HIS
is a postcard from latitude sixteen degrees south and longitude one hundred and fifty-eight degrees east. It is a glossy colour print that has the fault of being only two-dimensional, but if you look hard enough and long enough your trapped eyes will begin to notice that the boat in the middle distance, the
Malekula,
is swinging slightly, anchored in dense blue.

Time? Seven twenty. The heat is only just beginning.

It's too far away to see the shore in any detail but now and again there is a moment of bleached houses, the green smoke of trees and a sprawl of native stores, pub, mission buildings, hospital and prison.

There are far too many palms.

Someone below deck says “Port Lena” and there is another colour card of the lot of them at breakfast—papaw, pineapple, canned tomato juice and stale bread rolls.

There are two maiden ladies in the sad years, a married couple (the dialogue is grudging), an island agent coming back from tour, a bulky priest who is mainly silent, and the captain who has been bickering with the agent for five seasons. The agent is Irish expatriate, cultivated, testy; the captain is bulging, of Dutch extraction and the other man's natural enemy. There are three native boys who are kept well out of sight. They have all been together since the last landfall two nights ago and some hope to be together for another night or two until they reach the mainland port. Cards and liquor have opened many private places and everyone is in debt to Father Greely who out of the goodness of his heart has granted them all a plenary indulgence.

The two sea-nights had been hot and slow.

After dinner they would go up on the deck for an hour or so and then, when the women had crept into the bunks recessed in pairs, the men had played poker and drunk whisky until two and three. Bedded, they would all lie awake in the heavy oily air, aware of sounds behind sound, of the clicking of loosened teeth, the furtive movement of a hand when Gerald in a selfish desire to soothe at least himself reached out for his wife in the dark. The priest would lie with his eyes slitting the greyness of the cabin and remember the well-stuffed beds of the cathedral house, more comfortable than the usual sin of the flesh, and try not to
hear as the husband and wife argued in undertones. On deck the boys snored.

Now it was over for a few days. They were trying to conceal their lust for land and for absence from each other, and the harbour around them threatened with its certain momentum. Captain Brinkman was wolfing his third roll and over his munching moustache was watching the passengers with his benign but greedy eyes. He liked to know all the things others would most wish to conceal. He chewed noisily because he knew it irritated Stevenson who was talking across the wild painted ladies to Mrs Seabrook. In this air the mirrors of confronting faces were slightly clouded or perhaps the glaze was peeling off.

“Seven years,” Stevenson was saying in answer to her question. She had a way of parting her lips as she waited for the reply that made him want to pop it in with his tongue and he found this thought appalling. He hesitated, then added, “It's a kind of home now, I suppose, because of associations mainly. I've got a lot, well, not a lot, but quite a few dear friends here.” He ignored the captain's hairy smirk and, scanning Mrs Seabrook with his whisky-and-water eyes, felt enormously sad for that time of morning. Through the galley ports the sky had the transparency of the youngest souls.

Elderly Miss Paradise, in tropic white and an orange headband of sorts into which she had tucked some of the monstrous perm that always threatened to explode,
gave her frayed naughty glance between sips of warm tomato. But Captain Brinkman was unmoved, patted his stomach and made the sign of the cross.

“Excuse me,” he said. The half-bow was ironically challenging. They all ignored it. “Excuse me.”

He withdrew just too late to intercept the wonderful smile Mrs Seabrook suddenly gave Stevenson who, taking it full in the eyes, felt guilty for the minute (her husband, his mistress) but decided she was still a pretty woman. There was an occasional untidy curl, a lilt to the mouth and of course the insanity of personal quirks—the easel, the exotic canvases that she trailed everywhere on the narrow deck, plunging between ropes and hatch covers with her head scarf tumbling off. She spoke little, too, but it was often amusing.

In the galley the plaque of Saint Joseph was standing indifferent to the heaped-up plates one of the boys was flicking with a dish-mop. No miracle was going to polish them off. Brinkman's voice off-stage roared at him and the breakfasters who were facing the galley saw the hands shocked into a mess of frantic soap bubbles. Mr Seabrook sulked over his coffee wondering why he had come on this pseudo-placatory gesture to patch a marital breach and wishing he were back in the safe round he had created for himself of office, club, golf, occasional infidelity (why did she never retaliate? why did she always forgive?) and medical checkup every twelve months. He was only fifty but he felt a lot more even when he was acting considerably
younger, which was most of the time. “Please don't make a fool of yourself this year?” Kathleen had begged before the last Christmas party, but he had barged straight ahead, infuriated by her timid protest, and had drunk himself silly before midnight and had been punched by another husband before one thirty. Now he regarded her round, still-bright face with its incredible facility for recovery and felt only boredom. At forty, he told her mentally and savagely, you have no business looking still the wondering child bride bravely gulping back its tears whenever it gets hit. He could have smacked her there and then, but Miss Paradise, busy with crumbs and thoughtless as a fanatic, brushed and flicked, popped chunkier remnants between her puce lips and rose unexpectedly to angular heights. They would all gaze up at her, just for those few seconds, she imagined, and she would in her turn twinkle down at them, not quite flirtatious, but knowing, genteel, and adventurous.

“I must go up on deck,” she said. “It's too exciting.” And flapped at the men to remain seated. Gerald Seabrook who only rose for lovely or important women murmured something more crumbled than toast to his wife, who smiled unwillingly and sipped her black coffee. Miss Paradise, meanwhile, inclined her maypole body, for she never grew tired of the surface play, but had some difficulty negotiating the companionway with her friend, Miss Kitty Trumper, breathing uneasily behind. Both their bags hitched onto the same handle and
there was a terrible moment when it seemed they would never be separated, but at last they were up and outside, their breaths caught by the suddenness of the harbour and the dominating cone of Tongoa wispily smoking above the clean line of the beach. Even from here flamboyants hallooed redly between the houses and the waterfront stores and behind that, behind the white jumble of official buildings and shipping company sheds, on the last hillside terrace great prongs of tree growth like giant seeded lettuce pointed up between the buri-trees.

Had they been closer they would have noticed there were no birds.

No movement showed on the shore or on the small island astern where more official buildings protested patchily between trees, trailing their bureaucratic suffixes along the sullen morning skyline. Yet Miss Paradise's eyes were drawn back to the crater until she found herself repeating its name with a kind of hieratic rhythm to placate something only half-threatening in its blackened lip. Miss Trumper put tentative fingers upon her arm, but she ignored this touch and gave herself up to the enticement of the new scene. She adored arrivals, the expectancy of adolescence never failing her, and each unexplored landscape, each unknown group of houses or stores, each medley of still unsorted faces, insisted on the possibility of exotic chance and, though she had long ago desisted from active optimism, a Mister Right. . . . She didn't really care if it were a
Mister Wrong, though at sixty-two she knew, and her friends told her so, she should have had more sense.

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