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Authors: Robert Power

Tidetown

BOOK: Tidetown
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Tidetown

Also by Robert Power

In Search of the Blue Tiger

The Swansong of Doctor Malloy

Meatloaf in Manhattan

Tidetown

ROBERT POWER

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA
www.transitlounge.com.au

Copyright © Robert Power 2015

First Published 2015
Transit Lounge Publishing

This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission. Inquiries should be made to the publisher.

Map: Ian Faulkner
Cover image: ©Paulo Dias/Trevillion Images
Cover and book design: Peter Lo

Printed in Australia by McPherson's Printing Group

A cataloguing-in-publication entry is available from the
National Library of Australia:
http://catalogue.nla.gov.au

ISBN: 978-0-9943958-2-5

With love, as always, to my three sons

Tom, Dominic & Louis
,

and in memory of Liam Davison
,

who helped set me on my way
.

‘It is always hard to see the purpose

in wilderness wanderings until after

they are over.'

John Bunyan,
The Pilgrim's Progress

ONE

‘Everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough.'
– George Bernard Shaw

Tidetown could tell the story. Though memory's a curse; forgetting may be a better healer. Through its laneways, within its courtyards, the yellow wallpaper of its parlours. This hinterland could recount many tales: its moors and sea caves, cliffs and wetlands. Given a voice the woods could sing out secrets, the meadows whisper lovers' sighs. Some say the world is such an uncertain place. Shifting sands cover the tried and tested ways to confound and confuse the old. Travellers return with exotic tales of spices and temples, burial mounds and buildings carved into rock. Yet the people of Tidetown are proud of their town's traditions and habits; confident in its ability to let change pass it by, leaving no mark, leaving all untouched. Sailors, whose ships dock at the harbour for repairs or to unload cargo, sigh contentedly as they make their way along the jetty, certain that all will be as they left it. That the town's people will be going about their daily business abiding by the written and unwritten rules. In The Sailor's Arms the rum will be undiluted; and the mayor will be secure in his place, just as the footman is in his. Not much changes in Tidetown. But no place, no person, can stay as it is. Not for all time.

This coast is tired of shipwrecks. For centuries boats have broken apart on rock and reef. The cliffs have listened in hushed sadness to the tear and groan of beam and mast, wood splintering and creaking in the frothy brine. This day, a seagull looks down from its nest, its beady eye spying the lifeless bodies bobbing in the swell, wondering what pickings await. One solitary figure moves on the reef against the wash and sway of the waves: on his knees and elbows. His clothes are shredded to rags, revealing a tar-black skin not seen before in these parts.

He looks up, this man from Africa. Blood runs into his eyes, diluted and salty. He falls back into the shallow water; the razor-sharp rocks and barnacles slice and open his skin, beads of red bubbling and popping. But exhaustion numbs the pain as his instinct to survive keeps his head above the waves. Breathing is as much as he can do. His mind races to remind him of the thread of life. ‘My name is Zakora. Zakora,' he repeats. Images race and flicker at random. The past. The day the missionary came to his village, clutching the heavy book close to his chest: the ledger of life. The man from the new god, tall and white, pinky skin, his long silver hair like the colour of the froth where the waterfall hits the river. ‘Silvery Man', they called him, in their own language, behind his back. He wanted them to call him ‘Father'. ‘But we have our own fathers', whispered the children. ‘Silvery Man he will be', Zakora said to the other children. ‘Not Father'. The flowing locks, the salty water, the suck of the sea, the words on the blackboard and the room of small black faces repeating back to the Silvery Man: ‘sins of the world', ‘saviour', ‘lamb of god'.

Beached now, on a new coastline, foreign icy-cold water, the castaway, Zakora the
sangoma
drifts in and out of consciousness. The rain lashes him like the whips from the slave master; the cold is colder than anything he has ever known. The salty water is in his mouth, his eyes: it is trying to find a way to wash the jelly from his bones. ‘Remember, remember. Who I am,' he struggles to think, to breathe. ‘Who I am.'

Other images from the past keep Zakora alert, afloat. In the sacred hut, late at night. Out of earshot, out of sight of the Silvery Man, Zakora listens to the venerable
sangoma
, to learn his skills, his potions and his spells; looking through the smoke of the incense, grasping for the words and chants that force their way through the straggly beard and matted hair of the old
sangoma
. This will be Zakora's foil, his protection, the amulets and icons of his people against the Silvery Man and his god who hangs from a tree, so forlorn, so defeated. A message pinned to a cross. The boy, Zakora, grows to be proud, vital, alive. He will become a
sangoma
himself, a spiritual man in his own right. But in the daytime, the Silvery Man at the big blackboard, with his ‘cat-sat-on-the-mat' and his ‘Peter-Piper-picked-a-peck-of-pickled-peppers', Zakora learns the words and ways of the Jesus men, anticipating their value in some unknowable future. All these thoughts and half-forgotten sights jumbling through his mind, battling the waters, to keep him breathing; thoughts and memories that keep the drowning man pinching at life.

There's an iciness in the air to scratch at your eyes. Up on the cliffs the seagulls stay under feathers. Down below, the seals hunt deep beneath the sea where it's warmer. This is the coldest winter on record. The halyards on the boats in the harbour are frayed with icicles tinkling in the breeze. It is near to dawn, but Tidetown sleeps on. In their seaside homes couples hold each other close under eiderdown and blanket (even where passion has long since waned). In the mansion up on the hill the mayor pushes into the folds of his mistress as they snore and snuffle under a bearskin rug. In the monastery on the Island of Good Hope the Brothers stir to the sound of the bells calling them to prayer.

Across the valley, in cells as spartan and cold as those of the monks, the women of the prison fight to keep the cold and awakening at bay: few are eager to greet another day. The prison stands rock solid on the moor, its grey granite walls as bleak and uninviting as the freezing mist that swirls and circles. An onlooker (though none will pass by this fiercesome morning) might cast a glance up at the cliff of barred windows, each hiding a pair of lost souls (stored away for safekeeping). If the onlooker was sharp of vision they might see the faces of two young women, framed by the bars of a single window, looking out across the bogs and tors of the moorland.

‘Did you see him last night?' says the one to the other, pulling the thin rough blanket over her shoulders.

‘I did,' says the other, her breath mingling with the morning fog. ‘Oh blessed … he came to me.'

‘And now he is gone,' says the first.

They huddle close together, for warmth and complicity as they stare out across the landscape in hope of a sign: the flutter of an angel's wing, a shape in a cloud.

There's a loud knock on the door that turns them back into the cell. The small shutter in the thick metal door flaps open with a clutter. They can see the mouth and chin of the warden.

‘Perch and Carp Fishcutter. Get up and clean out your cell. The governor will see you at her pleasure. Be ready.'

BOOK: Tidetown
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