Black Gold, Chapter 11

Chapter 11 — Rain
… In which Paul Nouveau cleans his revolver. Julie returnes from shopping, upset. She had remembered her mother, who had died long ago. Paul tells her about his past — some of it. How he had seen a dead body when he was young, and how his father had left the family when Paul was very young. They drink their tea in silence, and it grows dark. It was time for Paul to visit Verheeren.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

After luncheon Paul stretched himself out on his bed to rest — his head still ached from the blows he had received the evening before, and he had suffered occasional bouts of dizziness through the day. His room was painted a pale dusty green, with cream trim around the door and window frame. It glowed with its own cool light. To Paul it looked like a child’s room, delicate and feminine, a sailboat frail enough to float away on the cool wind that was shifting the lace curtain back and forth. The sky had darkened; perhaps it would rain.


Julie had a music pupil; Paul’s room was next to her study, and at first he found the murmur of her voice and the pupil’s awkward playing irritating. The notes climbed and fell, bringing him sad memories of peaceful evenings at home. The events of the last few days had caught up with him, and he soon sank into an uneasy half-sleep.


He thought he saw a shadow beside the bed, a man standing quietly, but when he raised his aching head with an effort and looked around, there was no one there. His hair was full of sweat. He closed his eyes again.


His friend had stood beside his bed in the hotel room in Brussels, groaning and grimacing and fiddling with his revolver, while the rain beat against the windows. He’d said he had spotted a government spy downstairs in the lobby. If the police tried to arrest him they’d be in for a surprise. He loaded the little silver gun, counting the cartridges one by one; then he took a drink from a bottle on the bedside table. Then he unloaded the gun to clean it, then he loaded it again. But in the end it wasn’t the police spy who had taken the bullet, it was Paul. He shook the memories away, but they reached out to suck him in.


He dreamed a series of rapid, whirling dreams that pushed him headlong into a horrible future: he was being hunted down by the police, through the stinking back streets of Java, down dirty alleys like the ones in Sydney Town. He blended in with the crowd in a waterfront bar and swallowed mug after mug of foaming cider in an attempt to drink himself unconscious and so escape the dream, but someone recognised him and gave the alarm in a high, angry voice — it was Barnaby, with a savage dog on a lead, and he had to run again, out into the dark unfamiliar streets.


At least he tried to run, but he could hardly make his legs move. The crowd that followed him cried out that he had murdered young men, their brothers, and their voices echoed among the empty buildings. He ran around a corner and came face to face with a man concealed in the shadow of a doorway, holding a rifle: the barrel tilted up, the trigger finger moved, tighter and tighter. He tried to brush away the barrel, to push the gun aside, but it fired, again and again. He knew he was screaming, but no words came out.

The Piano Lesson. From the internet.


All the while the sound of the piano’s careful notes went climbing and falling through his fitful sleep like a set of steps that finally, when he let himself notice the sound, led him down into a valley filled with the gush and chatter of a rushing stream, where willows dangled their branches in the wet grass, where the air was chill, and a bird called through the mist.


He noticed a flower bobbing at the edge of the water. It nodded left and right, its roots almost torn from the earth, turning one way and then the other. He remembered something a sailor on the Trade Winds had said, something about bending with the flow. The stem of the flower bent and turned to the left, then to the right, endlessly alternating under the push of the swirling muddy current. It grew dark, and the scene faded.


When he awoke the house was silent. For a few moments he couldn’t think where he was: somewhere strange, he thought; somewhere sad and far away. He felt cold, and pulled a blanket awkwardly over his clothes. The sound of rain came from the garden, it drummed and gusted across the tin roof, and the gutters babbled with water.


After a while he got up and took his bag onto the veranda, where he found a cane table and two chairs. A damp breeze blew from the garden, and he sat and gazed out through the screen of trees. He was still adrift in the exhausted mood induced by his dream. There was something lonely and yet peaceful about the deserted garden with its brick paths gleaming under a film of running water.

Flowers. From the internet.


A few spring flowers glowed through the mist like jewels — stocks, sweet-williams, primroses, pansies, mingled with southern-wood, sweet briar, and various fragrant herbs whose names he didn’t know in English. And he recognised freesias growing loose and wild among the grass of the lawn — his mother had loved freesias; it was her only weakness, she said, and she kept a vase of them in the kitchen to mark the end of winter. They filled the house with their scent. The scene reached into his heart for a moment and he found tears filling his eyes. He brushed them aside irritably, and took the gun from the bag.


It was difficult to unload. He had to hold the loading gate open against its spring, and at the same time push the four empty cartridges out of the cylinder from the front, one by one, with the push rod. He took out the cleaning brush and got to work. The inside of the barrel had deposits of stinking black powder from the shots he had fired, and he ran the brush through it again and again, peering into the barrel to make sure it was as clean as a mirror. He applied a few drops of oil, and ran a rag over the metal. When he had finished he carefully reloaded the four empty chambers with live bullets and spun the cylinder, listening to the whirring clicks. The gun felt solid again now, properly balanced, heavy with the load of the cartridges and their fat, nose-heavy, lead-tipped bullets. He wrapped it in a cloth and laid it on the table; then he sat and stared out into the rain for a long time.

Tranter revolver, single trigger. Tranters are said to have been popular with the Confederacy Army during the US Civil War. From 1868 [William] Tranter started manufacture of centre-fire cartridge revolvers. Tranter retired in 1885 having built revolvers for the British Army to use in the African Zulu Wars. From the internet.


Out of the turmoil of the last few days — the new country he’d begun to explore, the strangers he’d met, the violent adventures he’d been plunged into — his mind kept coming back to three small incidents, all involving Frank Russell. When he had shot the bushrangers, among the glaring horror of that endless moment he remembered he had glimpsed Frank with his arm around Julie protectively, off to one side.


When he had been knocked to the ground outside the dance, bleeding from the savage blows Stern had dealt him, Frank had picked him up from the gravel and helped him to limp home, his arm around Paul’s shoulder. When they had walked down to the gate last night, Frank had put his arm around his shoulder for a moment. Frank was a young man, still in his twenties, still unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, yet Paul thought of him as much older; calm, strong, more mature than Paul himself.


Paul forced himself to remember how — years before — he had torn himself away from an affair with an older writer, a man. His feelings for the older man had been a mixture of dependence and contempt. In the beginning he’d admired his writing and his learning, and had looked up to him almost as a father; but he’d ended up despising him as a cowardly and homicidal drunk.


He had made himself into a different person now, and looked on the episode as a mistake. It was like a sickness, he felt, something adolescent, weak and unclean, and he had burnt it out of his system. His feelings towards Frank were another incoherent mixture — friendship, rivalry, brotherly love, he couldn’t sort them out at all.


A sudden memory came back, of the time he’d last seen his friend, the old writer, one drunken night in Stuttgart eighteen months before. They had ended up walking along the banks of the River Neckar arguing about religion, and the older man had pawed him and slid his hand down the front of his trousers. Paul had knocked him down with a single savage blow and had left him bleeding and unconscious on the ground.

View of Tubingen, on the river Neckar.


All that was dead and gone, buried in the past with the many other things he intended to expunge from his life.


His scribblings, for example. That is to say, his vanity.


Three years ago he had burnt all his manuscripts. He remembered with a giddy sense of satisfaction the smell of burning paper, the black wisps whirling in the wavering column of heat in the winter air. It had felt like cauterising an amputated limb, searing it in flame and dipping the bleeding stump in molten tar. He laughed, and punched his fist into his other hand.


With a start he realised he’d been talking aloud to himself. He looked quickly around the veranda and the dripping garden: no one there. He’d been alone too much, and now he was turning into a maniac, chattering on his perch like a parrot, sick with distress at the mess he’d made of his life. He caught a fleeting image of what he might look like seen from the vantage point of say twenty years into the future, if he should live that long: a man burning his past, nauseated with his youthful greed and arrogance and sick of his old vanities, but unable to see even a day into the future.


That was the thing, to read the future, but to see through the hopes and ambitions that clouded the view: to see it as it would really be. A frown creased his forehead and his fists clenched and unclenched as he stared into the drizzle. Each time he embarked on some new scheme he would see the future gleaming with success — just like a beggar who buys a lottery ticket and then dreams of what he will do with the money. Here he is selecting his new clothes, there he is on holiday in London or Rome, now he imagines himself choosing a carriage — should he have it painted royal blue, or maroon? Pathetic!


Every plan he had made had come to nothing, every voyage had foundered long before his ship had reached port, much less come home again with its cargo. All of it useless, his study of Arabic, of German, of engineering, his learning the piano, even his attempt to reach Greece and a job he had been promised in a factory — a soap factory, for God’s sake! He remembered with a mixture of anger and shame how he had collapsed with heatstroke tramping through southern Italy, and had to be sent home like a sick schoolboy. Then weakness and desertion in Java. Every dream a failure.


Another hour passed. His wrist was aching with the damp and the cold; he rubbed it absent-mindedly.


Julie came back from her errands soaking wet, despite her bright blue cape and her pink umbrella. She walked up the path onto the verandah, and shook out her hair. ‘Are you awake?’


He had been dreaming, in a daze. He stood up: the chill in the air made him shiver involuntarily. ‘What is it?’


‘That’s your revolver, isn’t it, all wrapped up so carefully? And those are the empty cartridges, I see. Have you cleaned the gun? Have you loaded it with bullets? Are you getting ready to kill someone else, Mister Nouveau?’


‘You know, you are very forward, as they say. The gun is for a wicked old man. But what the gun is for, that is not your business.’


They looked at each other for a moment; total strangers. She had an angry glint in her eye, he thought. Whom had she been talking to, in the town? There were no answers; the questions were like invisible shuttlecocks, striking back and forth. He could feel his heart beating with anger. Was it anger?


She shook out her blonde hair again and turned and went inside, humming a tune to herself. Paul recognised it as the tune the pupil had been playing that afternoon, and his dream came back suddenly: the rain, the cold valley, the flower bobbing and struggling to be free in the rushing muddy stream, the note of a bird deep in the mist.


He walked up and down the veranda for a while, trying out conversational openings. He had a dozen phrases in French that would have done, but they felt wrong in English. Damn it, he thought: he would just say what he felt. Tell her she was a hard bitch — bitch, was that right? — and apologise for his boorish behaviour. Tell her straight out that he felt a very strong feeling — a strong feeling that he — but what was it that he felt, exactly?


Finally he went in, and stood there inarticulately, clearing his throat. She was sitting at the kitchen table; he joined her.


‘Have some tea,’ she said, and wiped her cheek with her sleeve. There was something wrong with her voice, and he noticed that her eyes were red.


‘What is the matter?’ he asked.


‘Oh, nothing.’ She put down the card she had been looking at. ‘Here,’ she said, and pushed it across to him. ‘The only portrait of my mother.’


It was a silhouette, a double cameo of a woman’s and a child’s head, facing each other. ‘She has a lovely — silhouette,’ he said. ‘And that is you, when you were young.’


Julie gave a laugh that was also a sob. ‘I ran into old Mrs Clampitt at the store,’ she said, sniffing and wiping her eyes. ‘She knew my mother in Goulburn — I was just a girl then — and she’s always reminiscing. She said how everyone loved my mother, how kind and good-hearted she was. I don’t know if it’s true or not. I was too young to remember. But I got to thinking about it all, and I went and upset myself.’ She put her hands over her face and sobbed silently.


Paul swallowed; he didn’t know what to say. He would have given a fifty-pound note to have been somewhere else, away from this emotional quicksand. Should he put out his hand? No. He poured himself a cup of tea, spilling some onto the patterned linoleum that covered the table top.


‘Oh, leave it,’ Julie said. She took a deep breath and patted her face dry with a tea-cloth.


‘It is a terrible thing, to lose someone,’ Paul said. It sounded lame.


‘What I find hard to understand,’ Julie said, ‘is how some things last — trivial things, like a kitchen table, or horrible things, like the memory of something awful that happened to you — while a human being, a wonderful human being with the history of all their suffering and happiness, and all their emotions and all their memories, can just disappear as though they’d never existed.’


Her voice caught again, and she took a moment to gather herself. ‘My mother,’ she said, ‘my mother was the most important thing in the world to me. She taught me to speak, she taught me to read and write. She should have taught me how to cook, how to grow up, how to love other people —’ She stopped again for a moment. ‘How can something so alive simply cease, and mean nothing to an indifferent world?


My father was missing his paper the other morning — he was upset, looking around and about for it everywhere. He wasn’t missing my mother! Oh, I don’t blame him. I don’t really mean that. I don’t know what I mean. I know what I feel, though, and it’s unbearable.’ She put her head down in her arms and her shoulders shook.


Paul’s cup rattled in time to her sobbing. He steadied it with a finger.


‘Life must go on,’ he said carefully. ‘It is a stupid saying, yes, but it is true. It is awful, yet it is necessary. I learnt something during the war, when the Prussians were killing and destroying all around the countryside where I had grown up. I found a body —’ He stopped for a moment, and gazed into his cup. Julie waited, watching him.


‘When I was sixteen or so — well, one afternoon we walked into Belgium, a friend and I, to smuggle back some tobacco, and by the time we came back across the river the lines had shifted. This was the Prussian war. In the dusk we stumbled on this man, I tripped over him and fell. He looked like he was asleep, but it wasn’t really like that, he was too stiff and too still. The stillness of death, I’d never seen it properly before. You expect the chest to move slightly, the eyes to blink, the muscles at the side of the face, you know, a person is always moving a little bit. But this one, no. Nothing. Stiff and cold, like mutton.

Prussian Lancer, 1870 Germany, Uhlan Regiments, German Uhlan, War Imperialism, German Cavalry, War 1870, Franco Prussian War. From the internet.


‘Well, we were horrified — I took — I took some papers from a pocket of the jacket. There was a little money, Belgian, not much. And he was wearing a revolver. I took it out of the leather holster and looked at it — the black butt, the dark blue steel. It was heavier than I had imagined; I almost needed two hands to hold it steady. What might be in the other pocket, the one he was lying on? What if he came alive and cried out in a hoarse voice, and reached for me?’ Paul’s voice was hollow. ‘There was a fly buzzing around his face, and landing on his eye. His eyes were open, they were dark blue, like his jacket. That was awful, somehow, to see the thing land on his open eye, and no movement. Nothing!


‘By then I had abandoned all that rubbish, the church, the priest, all those old lies. But there, in that darkness, there was some horrible power there, and it seemed to dwell especially in the silence. In the lack of movement. I cannot explain. My flesh was warm with blood, my friend’s chest rose and fell slightly in time with his breathing, my pulse moved a little, in and out — that was so important, that slight movement, it seemed the most wonderful difference in the universe — such a little thing, true, a little thing, but holding our bodies away from the grave, dividing us from the horror we were looking at, separating the living from the dead.’


Julie was silent. Paul took a sip of his tea, and went on. ‘And also later, in the time of the Commune in Paris. And — well, I cannot talk about that.’ Julie looked at him. ‘On the one hand, the most hideous atrocities. But on the other side of the scales, life went on. You had to eat food, you needed to do it. You had to put a coat on, if it was cold, and sleep when you were exhausted, you needed to sleep, no matter if your friend had been killed that morning. The thing is, human beings can get used to anything. We have survived so long, among the wild animals and the murderous emperors and the armies laying waste to the world. Yes, it has enabled us to continue as a race. It is why you and I are sitting here in this town in the bush, drinking a cup of tea. You get used to anything. Life goes on, and we get used to it. And that’s how it has to be. It has to be like that.’


She looked at him thoughtfully for a minute or two. ‘Of course you’re right,’ she said at last, in a quiet voice. ‘It’s just the sense of loss that’s hard to bear, year by year. Once or twice I thought I saw her figure in the street, walking a dozen yards ahead — I ran to catch up, and of course it was someone else, someone else’s mother walking along.’


He fiddled with his teaspoon, then seemed to make up his mind. ‘Like you, I lost a parent,’ he said, ‘but in a different way. My father. He left us. I do not know why. The stupid thing is this, I thought I was to blame, that I had disappointed him or made him angry. That is sad, is it not? I thought perhaps some stupid thing I had done, some misbehaviour — though I tried to be good — some failure I was unaware that I had committed, some failure of mine had driven him mad with rage.’ Paul stood up and went to the window and looked out at the rain-soaked garden.


‘I used to pray to God to bring him home just for a day or so,’ he said, ‘perhaps to pick up something he had forgotten, a letter, a pair of boots. I would catch his sleeve in the hall before he could leave again, and then we would talk. I planned those imaginary conversations at such painful length — I would ask him what it was that I had done wrong, he would tell me, perhaps he might be angry, just a little, and then — then I would explain, and defend myself so cleverly, and at last he would see, he would understand how mistaken it had all been, how the whole thing had been just a silly mistake, and quite avoidable, really, if only we had explained ourselves.


And of course he would forgive me, and we would embrace each other. I would hug him with so much love — I could smell the scent of tobacco that always clung to his clothes, feel the rough cloth of his jacket. I could feel his heart beating against my chest. Such a passionate meeting. Such an empty hope.’ He bent his head forward and swallowed hard once or twice and wiped his hand across his face.


‘Is he still alive?’


‘Alive? I don’t know. I suppose so.’


‘Perhaps… perhaps you could —’


‘Find him? No!’


‘It may be better for you —’


‘Better?’ He turned to face her. ‘What, to hear some lame excuse? Or to hear him perhaps attack my mother? Worse, to hear some feeble apology from some stupid, weak old man I do not even recognise any more?’ He shook his head back and forth a few times. ‘It is lost. My childhood, I can never get that back. It is all gone.’


There was a long silence. His cup was empty: she poured another for him. He sat, and they finished their tea in silence. The light in the kitchen failed slowly, turning from the purple glow of dying thunderstorms to a dull pewter. The leaves of a eucalypt tree he could see through the kitchen window glistened with rainwater. Drops gathered at the end of each drooping grey leaf like crystal lenses, concentrating the afternoon into perfect spheres.


Each tiny upside-down picture of the garden was nearly identical to its neighbour, a galaxy of miniature worlds that trembled and then fell one by one. He could hardly see Julie’s face, just the gleam of her eyes. Finally she rose and lit a kerosene lamp. It was the lamp she had won at the shooting gallery. The glow filled the room with its buttery yellow light.

Early kerosene lamp. From the internet.


‘Look,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it pretty?’ He hadn’t heard. He stared at his hands on the table in front of him.


It was time to visit Verheeren.
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