These were once forested hills
Colonialism is a crime which began long ago. Capitalism commenced mid-18th century in England. Australia was invaded and colonised to populate the new colony with convicts, emptying crowded jails, killing or pushing the Aborigines into the desert.
These were once forested hills
Fernando García Izquierdo
‘They had inhabited these parts for ten thousand years when the Whites first arrived, a mere one hundred and seventy years ago. Clusters of nomadic people they hunted the kangaroo and wallaby and gathered berries and other produce of the earth. They walked about freely, all the extensive littoral for themselves, the cliffs, the beaches, and the hills then thick with forests; they had the plains, the rivers and the mountains if they wanted to wander about. The land must have been poor, as it is today, but rich enough for those who did not demand too much. The forests were thick with eucalypts, a native tree, and oaks, some red cypress and ferns as big as trees, shrubs and undergrowth. This was the Nature on which these primitive people we call Aborigines lived for generations; when they died, they left an unaltered landscape to their descendants. With the British invasion all that came to an end. The inhabitants of the land were either exterminated or pushed farther and farther inland. The whole continent became part of the British Empire. As for the mangroves and primeval jungle, most eventually disappeared. There is a pale example of what might have been these hills in times of yore, in what is called today the Centennial Park, daily crossed by thousands of Sydneysiders, on their way to work in the City, and back home in the evening.’
Thus was speaking a woman of between twenty-five and thirty, one evening of the month of February,1958, to a goup of recently arrived immigrants of whom I was in the number. We were occupying a room in a public school in Surry Hills: it was the State that provided for the lessons. With the affluence of immigrants after the War, Australia was worried that the character of the nation might change, for these newcomers were mostly from Europe. There was, in consequence, a special scheme for teaching them English and making them know about Australian history and geography. I attended the classes every Thursday, though I already spoke English well.
‘The Aboriginal people originated in the south of India,’ the teacher went on, ‘they moved on foot, and by boat or raft, passing from island to island, in successive migratory waves, some staying, others continuing south and first arriving in this southern continent about twenty thousand years ago.’
Someone asked a question and the teacher answered, tossing her short wavy hair as she turned round, for we all were together around a large circular table: ‘Migrants in effect they were, like you and me today. Is that what you want to say?’ Someone else said she didn’t want to be called a migrant, but new Australian. The Aussies living in the country (some of them for one or even two generations), generously, had begun to call the newcomers ‘New Australians’, to signify that the latter were welcome in the land, all brothers and sisters.
‘Of course, you’re right the teacher went on, ‘the entire human race is a migratory species. You know the saying: Man came out of Africa.’ And replying to another question: ‘New Australian, yes, I also come from abroad, even if I speak English fluently.’ She gave us her name and origin: ‘Angela Ibramopic,’ she said, ‘from Yugoslavia.’ She added that she had come as a child, escaping from the horrors of the war, with her mother.
On another occasion she had an open book in her hand, from which she read a couple of pages. I liked her short hair, yet covering her ample forehead as she bent down to read. Sweet and youthful, beautiful too, if a little wide at the cheekbones, specially because of that wonderful smile of hers.
‘All that is Australia begins not with man, but with the land itself,’ she read. ‘The wind blows dust and leaves and scrapes of dead bark. The vastness of space, that intense light in the outback, the sky often a deep blue hue. Those bare hills that change from blue to red; those vivid evening colours. Dwarf white gum trees like twisted bodies and leaves as so many sharp blades. A continent ever underpopulated, even if in some parts of our country there are towns, industrial zones, ports and great activity, mainly along the coast, some big cosmopolitan centres, such as Sydney and Melbourne.’
‘But we are the Awakening Giant,’ said a tall Latvian man, who came every Thursday with his wife, a most beautiful tall blonde who spoke very little.
And now everybody wanted to speak. A boy of eighteen from eastern Germany, called Mietic, who when a child escaped miraculously from an extermination camp in Poland, said: ‘Angela, please, tell us a story. Like the other evening.’
‘Listen to this all of you,’ the teacher said, another day, getting out of her large briefcase a book entitled ‘Australian Short Stories.’ ‘You know that this was in the past a land of explorers, drovers, diggers and adventurers of all kinds: well, I recommend all of you to read this,’ she made a pause while people copied the details of the book, then she passed over some pages before saying: ‘I am going to read to you one about the convicts. Now, here it is. There is a legend, spread around the cottages and terrace-houses of these hills, which tells of four shadowy figures appearing all of a sudden on a moonless night upon the scrubland extending all the way from the cliffs overlooking the ocean to these then forested hills. There were those days a few wooden cabins on the lee of the forest. Very discreet individuals were the dwellers of those cabins, solitary men that the least they would have desired was to have anything to do with any absconded convict, for they were themselves freedmen, lonesome creatures living in a state of nature. Not one among these freed convicts of the cabins knew about the others, who had come nobody knew wherefrom. It got into the character of the Aussies: not interested in learning anything about anybody, thus avoiding complications in the future. Contact with those four men or phantoms of the night was, in truth, the last thing anyone desired. For them, the vision bode only big trouble. If the guards appeared unexpectedly they might catch the lot of them and hence, ‘Reconvicted!’ and sent to Norfolk Island, from where no one ever escaped. The island was recognised as being, even by the military, the ultimate hell on earth.
There was not a sound, therefore, as the four poor escapees trudged upon the scrubland to the hills, where they did not hesitate one moment about what they had to do: the four ghosts ascended the slope among trees and disappeared.
‘History books give the names of these four unfortunate men,’ the teacher read, ‘as Bill Swallow, Philip Murray, Jimmy O’Bryant and Leslie Ferguson.’
One evening I was coming out of the classroom, thinking about my pretty teacher, when I found she was there, walking by my side. I said ‘Hello!’ and she responded, with her usual friendliness, ‘How d’you do?’ ‘Well! and you, how do you feel,’ I asked, without thinking, ‘after such a magnificent lecture.’
She laughed, and we could have had a conversation, but we reached the bus-stop and my happiness was not meant to last.
And it became usual. Next Thursday she was again going down Crown Street, the way I took to catch my bus. I found she lived in Fitzroy Street. We went on side by side, talking. But she stopped short at the shelter, and we wished each other ‘Good night!’ The bus came, and from my seat I saw her turning into Fitzroy Street. Such a gracious figure, her full skirt, her big leather bag balancing from her shoulder. The bus took me to Central Railway, where I caught another one home.
In my solitary nights, at the boarding house, I thought of Angela; I saw her in my dreams, I made many plans (involving her) in my office, in the café at midday, I counted the days till Thursday. In a word, I had fallen in love. I loved that divine creature, wanted to have her in my arms, press her against my heart. I wanted her. The lonely life I led in Australia was no life for a man like myself.
As the days passed and I sank down in my solitude, I felt more and more desperately that I needed that woman. My work at the office, my solitary walks in town, luncheon at the Fish and Chips café; and then a meal at night in a Chinese restaurant in Pitt Street… so strange, at my age my father had been married seven years and my mother had already given birth to three of her four sons. This was only a thought, many of those involving her. All in my head; but it made of me a nervous wreck. That was the trouble with migrating. Young male migrants had been interned in Callan Park mental hospital for less.
As if luck would have it, I got her on Thursday evening. I mean, our encounter the next Thursday evening was on the staircase of the public school. She wore stiletto heels and I thought she tripped over. In short, we descended the steps arm in arm. I don’t know what the others might have thought.
She told me she lived down there, in Fitzroy Street, which I knew. If only she would take me to her home one evening, for a cup of tea, say, I thought. My eyes kept straying to her thighs, for it was a very hot evening and she wore a mini-skirt. We ambled together the same six or seven hundred feet down to Fitzroy Street, when there came a sudden shower, precisely as we reached the bus stop. We rushed into the shelter. She asked me if I was a nationalised Australian, saying she had been in the country twelve years. And she showed me her passport. Peeping through its pages, while trying to continue the conversation, I saw she was a few months older than I. She was born the first of June, myself the tenth November (and yet I had thought she was younger.) There was definitely an angel in her face which would make her look young all her life. Her name in the passport appeared as Angela Gardi. I did not have the time to ask her what that signified, for my bus was arriving and it no longer rained. She picked up the document, we hurriedly said good-by, and from my seat in the bus I saw her, going on round the corner, holding the long straps of her big bag with her hand as one holds the two cords of a curtain together, stepping up her pace. ‘She’s dancing! Perhaps a man is waiting for her.’
Next Thursday, as I entered the classroom, I saw her talking to a very blond man called Sasha, or Sacha, and at once thought they made a nice couple. What hope could I have of calling Angela mine one day? As the lecture started, our eyes met and, I don’t know why, I thought her look was keen. She retained her gaze. I think I blushed. She talked about the convicts once more. It seemed she had written a thesis at university on ‘Transportation’.
Maybe that was what made me go one Saturday morning to the Mitchell Library in town. I thought that I must read books on the subject, if I wanted to engage her into conversation, if we coincided walking in the street once more.
One Sunday afternoon I drove to Surry Hills, thinking – or rather, hoping - that a miracle might take place. I reached Fiztroy Street with the one idea in my mind that I had to see her. If I drove up and down the streert, I thought, looking for my love, I might chance to see her; or I could find her name if I pulled up, and walked the length of the street, reading the brassplates. Otherwise I would drive to Tamarama, the beach where she said the runaway convicts had landed the night of the story, and where she used to lie down on the sand to sunbake. I had just bought my Holden and had to try it any case.
And I was lucky. Banging the knocker at a door with her name, she came out and smiled at me, stretching her right hand, which I held in my own just a moment, explaining I had borrowed two books from the lending library which I was bringing to show her. Transportation, I said, rather sillily.
She took them, turned round and led the way in. Smiling, showing two white rows of teeth, she asked me to sit down on the sofa while she prepared some tea. She wanted to know if I liked it with milk. When I said yes, she passed one cup to me; then she sat down with her own cup, which she had without milk, next to me. She wore a miniskirt and my eyes kept straying to her handsome thighs, within reach of my left hand, so very appetising. She noticed I was ogling and said, quite amused. ‘Stop it, Miguel!’ I think it was the first time she called me Miguel.
Taking one of the books again in her hands, she saw it was about the brig Cyprus, a history of some absconded convicts who became famous pirates. She spoke about books, mentioning that she had had an Italian tradesman build a shed in the back garden, where she had placed all her books; the house was too small, as it were, to have three big bookselves.
When the weather outside cooled down a little we went outside into the front garden, each one with a tumbler in our hand, and she in addition carried a portable Gramophone. She had previously asked if I wanted to hear some music.
We were listening to music by Khachaturian. I had the record cover in my hand, admiring the exotic beauty of a young Armenian woman, dancing with a sword in her hand, who wore a satin-white blouse with large sleves and silky black panty-hose. Mountains and forests were seen on the background.
When the music stopped, I placed the record back in the cover, and turned my eyes to her. ‘Angela, I know you want to write a book following your thesis at uni,’ I said looking fixedly at her pretty body (we were sitting on opposite chairs), ‘I have come to suggest we write it jointly. I have already had my hand at writing, unsuccessfully…’ ‘Miguel, naughty boy,’ she exclaimed. ‘Stop ogling!’ She was still wearing her miniskirt. I apologised. ‘What are these trees, pines?’ I asked, not knowing what to do to hide my embarrasment. ‘I think so,’ she answered.
She went in, and I knew I had made a fool of myself. When she came back, she wore a long skirt. She brought a bottle of Gordon’s Gin, with which she filled two tumblers also brought from the house. She talked about trees. ‘Any sort of coniferous,’ she replied to my previous question. ‘Here eucalypts. To think that there isn’t one tree left in these parts. All gone centuries ago.’
‘Centuries ago!’ I protested. ‘Me thinks you exaggerate. The White man has only been here at the most one century and a half.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ she answered, absent-mindedly. ‘They destroyed the forest quickly enough. By the bark-ringing method, you know what that means? Just a deep cut with a sharp knife, all around the bark, and the most formidable eucalypt fell dead by itself. Building, fuel… all disappeared very fast.’
There was just where we were sitting a sort of table made out of the trunk of a big tree. ‘This one,’ I said, pointing at the table, ‘seems to have survived until recently.’
‘Dino cut it down. He built the barbecue too. He liked to bring his friends to work with him during the weekends. All the same, reverting to the subject of our conversation, you may look around these hills, not a single tree left…’
I lay my specs on the table, took her sunglassed from her nose and placed them near mine, then stamped a big kiss on her nice red mouth, biting her, for I was jealous after hearing her ex-husband’s name and wanted to hurt her.
To my surprise, she did not protest or withdraw from my embrace. After a while I filled our glasses again. ‘Your health, Angela!’ ‘Your health, Miguel dear!’ And we intercrossed our arms as we took our gin to our lips. Then kissed again.
I was awakened at five by the cries of birds coming from the open window. A rising sun was flooding into the room. Trying not to wake her up, I squeezed out of bed, dressed and went out through the back door into the back garden, being able as I came out of the house to see where the screeches that had put an end to my sleep came from: some rooks, which in Australia are called ‘yellow-beaks’, had made their nest under the eaves outside the bedroom window. As a matter of fact, just as I reached the garden, one of them came flying to me and for a moment I thought it would attack me. Waving my arms about, it flew away and I walked along the narrow cement path that separated the lawn in two. The back yard or garden was long and narrow. I entered the shed at the end of the path, near the gate, wanting to see what sort of books my Angela read. I picked one in my hands, surprised and disappointed, because she seemed to be interested in the kind of novels I most disliked: modern tales about detectives in the Middle ages, finding hidden treasure, that sort of thing, and stories of Templar Knights.
We spent nearly the whole Sunday on the sands, and on the sands we wrote a few more lines about a story we were writing jointly, each giving an opinion. ‘A narrow beach. It is said the runaways landed on a beach like this, between two lofty hills.’ ‘Yes, on a beach like this.’ ‘They had been lucky not to have drowned at sea, approaching New South Wales.’ ‘The rollers had been pushing them to the coast, luckily enough, for the single mast had been lost along with the sails, all gone.’ ‘They thought that was the end for them, for the breakers on this part of the coast were terrific.’ ‘After landing, they had to run and hide, abandoning everything save some rations of food they had pinched from the settlement kitchen, a hatchet and two machetes.’ These were notes she was made in the block of paper. In one of the books of reference, as they began to clamber up the cliff, Philip Murray slipped and fell. His body was seen down below, smashed among the stones on the sand. The other three ran like devils encarnate across the scrubland to the forested hills, in the moonless night. I
stopped writing and asked: ‘Doesn’t the story mention four entering the forest?’
‘No,’ Angela said, ‘when they left the bergantine they were four; but when they were about to enter the forest, there were only three: Bill Swallow, Leslie Ferguson and Jimmy O’Bryant. They were to cross it and eventually reach Sydney Town, built near the cove and on the lee of the forest. It was raining when they got in.’
‘Yes, I know,’ I insisted. ‘the night they entered the forest; but I have read in one of the books from the library that there was a fifth man, called Tom Barker.’
‘Well, I haven’t,’ Angela answered, conclusively. ‘Let’s get back to basics. On the third day the food rations had been consumed, and they were lucky the undergrowth was still moist and they could lick the leaves of ferns and shrubs to quench their thirst, for gum leaves are no good. A big lizard crossed their path once. It stopped a few seconds, as if surprised, and already Jimmy O’Bryant, the boy, had jumped on it like a pussy-cat, burying his nails on the poor devil’s rough skin. The Scotsman, Ferguson, made a fire with some leaves, rubbing two dry sticks together. They roasted the animal, which they then ate to their heart’s content, and could thus go on for a few more days.
After breakfast, next Saturday, we undressed, put our swimmers and shorts on, drove to the coast and went down to the sands again. Tamarama Bay, that narrow beach surronded by high cliffs where the four runaways, Angela insisted, had landed that night of March 1833. We left the car by the side of the road, and walked down a narrow path to the sands, Angela carrying the food hamper, and myself a beach umbrella and the ice-box with the drinks. After installing ourselves on the beach we went together for a swim. Decidedly we entered the water holding hands, and we both let out a cry, for the rippling waves reaching up to our thighs were ‘too bloody cold!’ She dived first into a retiring roller and began swimming. I paddled on after her, and soon no longer felt the cold. Up another wave towards the open sea, down upon a green-blue valley. I was happy now: The sun, the sea, my girl. But inadvertently, in a minute, I found myself alone in the middle of the ocean and felt worried, thinking of sharks, which abounded in these parts. I should have thought also of my own physical limitations, for I was trying to climb up a dark-blue wave, and some other force was pushing me back. I saw the snow-white peak coming on, blinding me and I became the toy of an ocean which now looked terrifying. Burning the last remnants of energy left in me, tossed by the waves, I approached her miraculously, by chance, and her sole presence a few feet away, gave me courage. In a moment the two together we were tossed forward by the rollers that soon became the frightening breakers of which we had been warned by the neighbours, a tumultuous world of water, salt and sand, and I lost her. My mouth full, my eyes blinded, my soul terribly frightened… and, after a last terrific somersault, I found myself sittting on the wet sand beside my lovely Angela!
At home, coming out of a warm shower, we had a wonderful dinner she had prepared in the morning. She was the most beautiful woman in the world, wearing a rather short black negligé, which made the suntan of her shoulders, legs and arms look golden by comparison. Her hair, now quite dry and dishevelled had become blonder after a day on the beach under the sun. After siesta we sat together in the back garden. She had become quite enthusiastic about writing and I was reading a few of the pages already written since we had decided the book about ‘Transportation’ would be a joint effort.
‘Too weak to go on,’ she had written, ‘for they found little to eat in the way of plants. The Australian forest produces nothing in that respect. No fruits on the branches of the trees, nothing that humans could eat; no berries in the brambles. They tried to eat roots, munched leaves, bark; but these were nothing, less than nothing. They found no bird to hunt. Once again a big lizard crossed their path, and again Jimmy jumped upon it as a cat catching a bird. Ferguson made a fire; they ate their victim, and went on,’
It was very early in the morning when I pulled up my car near her house the next Saturday. As I lifted the latch at the gate, I noticed the front door was open. ‘Oo-hoo!’ I heard her calling me. She had heard me arrive and had rushed to open the door for me and back to the bedroom. I found her getting rid of her pyjamas, letting me admire her pretty body. ‘Peeping Tom!’ she cried, rushing to pull down over her naked body a blue cotton dress, short and rather tight. ‘Your fault. This is provocation,’ I protested, holding her tightly in my arms. For breakfast we had black coffee and buttered buns with honey and marmalade. Afterwards we passed on to the back yard and began consulting some books I had brought from the library.
It was a Saturday and I accompanied her later to do her shopping, holding one of the handles of her big wicker-basket. As we entered Albion Street the bells of the catholic church were chiming and I recognised some Spaniards going up the stone steps. ‘Look, Angela,’ I called. ‘my countrymen are going to church!’
She tossed her head and chest around, to gaze, without turning the rest of her body, so her blue dress became delightfully tighter.
‘Stop it!’ she cried, ‘Everybody is looking.’ ‘I have done nothing wrong,’ I complained. ‘You have. The way you look,’ she responded, leading the way into an Italian delicatessen, where she bought all kinds of Mediterranean goods. We moved on to other shops. And so, until we filled the basket.
We had a big lunch with fruits and vegetables, and dry salty sardines with pickles and oysters, all drowned with a bottle of Penfold’s chilled white wine.
‘The absconded convicts found nothing to eat,’ she was dictating and I was writing this time. ‘Little Jimmy was a tall lad still growing and needing probably more nourishment. However it might be, on the third day of their expedition, always going deeper into the forest, all his energy was gone, poor boy. He began banging into the trees which all the time appeared to the travellers bigger and closer together, making the forest in fact impenetrable. Once he banged his head so badly that he fell to the ground and, half unconscious, began howling for his mother back in Ireland. ‘How’s that, mum? Pass us a piece o’ Xmas cake!’ he wept. Unable to move among the undergrowth of fern and gum leaves, he opened his mouth spasmodically, gulping, shrieking for help which would never come. Shrieks which were soon to be followed by perpetual silence. The other two jumped at once upon the poor body, brandishing their machetes ready to cut his corpse into …’
‘Halt! Halt!’ Angela cried, standing up. I also stood up. ‘Miguel,’ she said. ‘In this book (getting hold of one of the two on the table) the tragedy is explained differently.’ ‘Well,’ I agreed, ‘We’ll leave it for today. Besides I have to investigate that point about a fifth man, Tom Barker.’
On Sunday we spent the whole day on the beach, sunbaking and swimming.
When she opened the door to me next time I called, she looked strange and agitated, turning round to let me in, in the manner of a person wanting to occult something. The house smelt of American tobacco.
There was a man in the kitchen, whom she introduced perfunctorily as Dino. I don’t think he said anything in answer to my ‘Good morning! I only noticed he went on smoking, stroking his blue-black hair, shiny with Brylcreem. The kitchen was at the end of a rather long corridor. I went straight into the back garden for I wanted to get something from the shed at the end of the yard and be gone.
As I was packing my things in my sack, including the manuscript of our story, which did not belong to me exclusively, I saw her through the small dusty shed window. She was standing on the narrow cement path, half way between the shed and the backdoor of the cottage. She looked sad and devastated. I very cowardly bypassed her, stepping on the narrow strip of lawn to the door. I saw her again as I was closing the street door. She had followed me without uttering a word, expecting something, on the brink of tears. But I shut the door behind me, saying not a word. I would have the occasion to learn later on that I had destroyed the person I loved, without thinking, not realising what I was doing.
From Fitzroy Street I drove into Albion and towards Oxford Street, from then on into the City, thinking of hitting the Cahill Expressway, to get quickly home, crossing the Bay over the Harbour Briidge to North Sydney.
But as I passed by the Royal Botanical Gardens, I pulled up, parked the car and went for a walk, shaking with nerves. Then I lay on the grass under a big Jacaranda tree. ‘Oh, my God! What had I done? I didn’t have the right to treat her that way,’ I thought, seeing some beautiful stars in a perfectly blue sky. I had insulted an honest woman I adored, whom I still loved, without giving her an opportunity of saying a word. ‘Sure there is an explanation,’ I said to myself. Why did I not…?’ I am mad, I am mad…
Seeing the beautiful colours of Nature overhead, and beyond all that the intense blue colour getting deeper, darker... everything became blurred in a moment. I had tears streaming down my cheeks. I don’t know how long I spent thus, crying. Alone. I would be a lonely man from now on, the rest of my life.
When I arrived back in my home unit, the blue of sky had turned into a black firmament dotted with stars. I spent the night watching the movement of the harbour from my window.
I thought of my dear Angela now nearly every moment of my life. She was ready to explain to me what the presence of that man in the house could signify but I left the place so brutally, by-passing the poor woman, without giving her a chance. This thought got deep in my mind and tormented me. It did not stop me from working, however. It had always been the same with me. It was so melancholy. Only great art could cure me of it. And work. I caught the bus at Milson’s Point and went over the Harbour Bridge to the City, where I devoted myself to patent law. And at night, in the flat, I wrote, after a few hours’ sleep. I was so exhausted when I went to bed every night at ten that I fell asleep at once, but I woke up in the middle of the night, and wrote about Bill Swallow and the other absconded convicts. And yet, it had been at the beginning her idea, not mine. It was her book. I only put a bit of system in the narration. My bloody novel. Here I had stolen her manuscript.
Seated by the window, watching the harbour, so strange these days, without the yellow lights of the wharves, because the wharfies were on strike, protesting about the Vietnam War. ‘And the worse of all,’ I thought, ‘is that now I can’t go on. I don’t know Australian history.’ Oh hell! How strange, I generally took decisions fairly quickly and at this moment I was paralysed. To go and kiss her again, my darling Angela, to get her in my arms, press her to me.
I tried however to go on, all alone. So I changed everything, remembering that great thinkers had always said that ‘it is more pardonable to trespass against truth, than beauty.’ With this in mind, I resurrected in my story the convict named Tom Barker, whom only one chronicle mentioned and that she had insisted was spurious. I had read his name in the Mitchell Library, a chronicle of the nineteenth century, a runaway, like the others, from the Recherche Bay penal settlement that day of May 1831. I had also read that said Barker had been an honourable officer of the Royal Navy who had fallen in disgrace.
There had been in fact a Thomas Richard Barker, whose name appears in the Civil Register of Maldon, a town near the mouth of the River Thames. His parents belonged to the merchant class, and sent him to a good school, where he did very well. When he was sixteen he enlisted in the Royal Navy, and at eighteen he is found in India, the Jewel of the Empire, fighting for the Crown. Two years in Asia changed him for life. Those were years of battling against the tribal people in the mountainous regions of the north. He took part in the massacres committed while pacifying the Crown’s most rebelious subjects. Later on, coming south to Calcutta loaded with gold and other wealth after so many lucrative expeditions, he was recommended by his commander, Colonel Martial Newcome, of the Salisbury Batallion, for promotion. A most respectable officer of the Royal Navy, he became. He opened an account in the Calicut-London bank, limited company. Lieutenant Thomas R. Barker’s future was thus assured. Now a lieutenant, he went riding up the mountains again, and saw new crimes, in the Third Royal Battalion of Bengali Lancers, with the help of Indian potentates. He would never forget how the native people were pacified and their land conquered to satisfy the greed of both the local maharajahs and the colonisers, who worked hand in hand in all the massacres and grabbed together the benefits gained in the operations. It can be said that in India Tom learned much about the division of humankind in classes, the poor and the rich, and how the British banks used the local potentates in order to accumulate capital at home, Imperial Britain. The (British) Governor was the most important man in India, respected by all the maharajahs, adored by their maharanis, as well as by the great financiers, English and Indian. In the end Thomas R. Barker, the man, became a loyal subject, who deposited all the money he was earning in the Bombay branch of the Bundelcund Bank, with registered office in London.
Lieutenant Thomas Barker only returned to England when his fleet of six ships was ordered back home, to be flung anew into wars and colonial fights. A voyage to the North American colonies was now being prepared to help the merchant navy, the lucrative slave trade from Africa to America being quite flourishing. Eventually the fleet berthed at Liverpool, where he met a very pretty girl he fell in love with. Tom was then a very handsome tall man of twenty-four, blond like a viking and with a suntanned face.
Joan MacNally was as pure a specimen of Irish beauty as one could wish to see; long blue-black hair, perfectly white skin and a full red mouth. But her most beautiful trait were those eyes of a brilliant blue, like a cloudless sky in a summer morning. Lieutenant Barker saw her at a dinner party given by a rich local merchant, where a dozen King’s officers from the fleet had been invited as special guests. The following day he wrote to her father demanding her hand, explaining he was in the Royal Navy and trying to show in writing the intensity of his passion for Joan. The next time the fleet arrived in Liverpool Thomas and Joan were married, the wedding being celebrated in the Catholic Cathedral. As the newly wedded descended the carpeted flight of marble steps, from the altar down to the equally carpeted central aisle, twenty naval officers, members of the bridegroom’s detachement, ten on each side in full uniform, instantly drew twenty shiny swords out of their scabbards, and lifted them up in the air, thus forming an artificial tunnel inside which the happy newly-wedded walked all the way to the entrance, a shower of confetti falling upon the two lovers, Tom in full uniform passionately pressing Joan to him, oh! such great beauty, in a long white robe studded with little stones like diamonds. There was a flush on her cheek on account of her timidity, for she was only eighteen, and everybody was looking at her. She loved her Tom. She felt so very happy!
They had a happy married life: two years residing in Liverpool; where the fleet was temporarily based making regular voyages to North America, the merchant navy bringing from the colonies the cotton that was always needed to keep busy the many mills now operating in Manchester, Preston and all Lancashire.
Afterwards the Royal Navy made different arrangements, and Thomas Barker, through the influence of Lord Tiltontin of Liverpool, was commissioned to occupy a post in the Admiralty, London, where the happy family moved to. Two little children had been born in the meantime, Eliza and Danny.
But those were troubled years with wars on the Continent, and British sailors and soldiers were greatly required in order to defend Britain from her enemies, the more so as industry and commerce had greatly prospered and now England depended on free trade, and freedom for exporting its industrial products.
Because of this, the imperial army and navy found the way of making war everywhere. And lieutenant Thomas Barker consumed all his energies (and three years) from then on killing Frenchmen and Austrians and Poles and the members of many other nationalities. He saw utter ruin all over, and knew he was losing his soul.
At the siege of the coastal city of Szczecin, Tom Barker was knocked down by a piece of shrapnel that wounded his knee, and he lay, stretched out in the mire, for an hour or more. He was lucky that a sailor of his own ship found him. For his wound, though slight, was getting infected and giving him great pain. The man, called Swallow, was a Cockney from eastern London, a few years his senior, extremely nice and funny to the point of cheering him up. Less tall than Tom, the corporal dragged him down to the beach, to embark him on their boat.
Shortly afterwards the war came to a halt. The French had been defeated and peace restored. Tom honorably discharged but without pay. He was no longer that handsome Viking-like fellow, tall, blond and happy. His knee injury had been cured, but a slight limp was left to him for life. He applied to serve with the merchant navy, but there were thousands like him and with the end of the war there was a slump in trade as well. A long period of depression followed. The nation was poorer. Everywhere jobs were lacking. Soon Thomas R. Barker found out the terrible truth: as a worker he was not valued at all any more. Soldiers and sailors who had been engaged by the thousands not so long ago, were seen in the streets fending for themselves, haggard-looking, arms hanging down, stooping, trudging along in the streets of the capital. A crisis which would last seven years. He shuffled through the streets: employment was not available.
While in India, he had placed his money in the London-Bombay bank. He still possessed shares in several financial entities. Ruin came suddenly out of the blue. The news of the collapse of the bank spread from mouth to mouth. It had sufficed for a big vessel, ‘the Eastern Star’, to sink in the China Sea, loaded with precious stones, gold and silk, in a most terrible gale, for Tom’s little fortune to go with it to the bottom of the ocean. He ran back home, embraced his wife most tenderly and kissed the children. He then took his hat and umbrella again, and left. And until he found a room for rent, in the dirt and mire of the riverside, he found no rest. There they moved the following day, a family of paupers, two pushing a borrowed wheelcart, the children trudging behind: from the wealthiest to the most miserable part of the mighty city of London, the capital, with what was left of their possessions.
They had hidden from their respective parents, relatives and friends the horrible financial situation in which they found themselves, partly because they felt ashamed of their present state, and partly because there were rumours that an economic recovery was at hand; which never came. Tom had made aristocratic acquaintances in his day, who were still very much in command of the economy: people involved in the merchant navy, acquainted with skippers; and in the navy too, Rear Admiral Angus MacRoss might have helped him. But nothing came his way, poor limping Tom. No recognition, no job ever came. Seeing he had that wound on the knee, which made him useless as a sailor, and now aged and haggard after so many years in the colonies and in the wars, everybody turned his back on him, nobody even looked at him. Loneliness! That was the end result of all his devotion, all his loyalty to the Crown. Shit! Nothing remained. If he could only tell other people, suffering mankind, what he now saw so clearly! Oh, miserable Human, lament not your bad luck anymore, but fight.
In the great two iron pots were boiling, when he entered cold and tired, some potatoes in one, he knew, and in the other there must be some fish, from the smell. The fire was the only light in the room. He saw the silhouette of his adored Joan, a long black dress, a kerchief tied under her chin. He stepped forward, kiss his wife and burst out crying and they cried together By their side, on a mattress on the floor, Eliza was moaning. Danny was also near the fire, lying asleep on a heap of straw. A dusty closed window, the dark sky.
… In his mind, he went back to the days when he was an officer in the Royal Navy and a man of property. All was light and brilliancy then: outside, the plate-glass; inside, a profusion of gas-light in richly guilted burners; the hum of happy conversations and the grand ball: the lovely maidens in expensive showy robes; young gallants in uniform or black falling in love with damsels offered to them
Now, poor Tom! darkness all around. Through the closed window the snow falling so white. And the begrimed walls around. For the first time in all his days born, he cursed the world and wished the British Empire would sink down. With him.
Long, irregular rows of wooden sheds and wagons full of fruits and vegetables. Men were selling beef, pork and fish. As well as poultry and sausages and other for him precious merchandise. Carts and barrows full of produce, bread, oats, wheat, pickled cabbage, bacon and other commodities.
He had been ambling along streets and alleyways for a while, alone in the midst of the crowd. On the street-corner a little boy has been sweeping the mud away to allow fine ladies and gentlemen to cross from pavement to pavement without dirtying their footwear and expensive gowns held upwards by delicate feminine fingers: a coin slipping into the little guy’s hand, and a smile of recognition on his dirty face. ‘Ta yer Honr!’ The capital of an empire where never sets the sun.
Tom again wandering in the streets at night alone: an occasional straggler.
It was very cold. The nobles, bankers, industrialists and their wives were dining. Legions of lackeys would be running about carrying big wax-candles alight. And in hidden corners -oh, gosh! The porcelaine chamber-pots in a servant-girl’s rough hands, for the exquisite children of rich families urinating, and back to the dancing hall, having first sprayed eau-de-cologne all over. And he was part and parcel of all that luxury that he is seeing at a distance. Now he lives with the poor, massed in houses of misery, soot and damp, façades falling in decay. Infection from the river, and infections of other origins.
Busy and idle Londoners belonging to the same race of shopkeepers and money lenders, on this side of the border, the City, and on the other, a greater number of citizens made every day redundant by the system: workers without work, beggars sunk into dire misery, invalids’ presence now growing in many quarters, because of the wars and because of the boom of chemical industries; and cleaners, chimney-sweeps and building-workers of some sort, as well as porters, huskers, carters and wagoners in search of an honestly-earned peny. A motley crowd of partially satisfied and totally malcontent people: active traders, swindlers, dodgers, pickpockets… and among them our Tom circulates, striding along, his big sack hanging from his left shoulder. He is courted by pimps and prostitutes, money-lenders and rotters of all kinds and ages, but he owns no capital, he has nothing to offer, it becomes obvious.
Suddenly a tremendously shrill shriek is heard: ‘Stop thief!’ and many of the public turn to gaze: roars of laughter, while the victim yells. And Tom goes on silently stooping his body to the ground, hoping for some treasure to pick up and slip into the sack. He reaches Clare Market where he fills his sack with veggies and other rejected edibles that are lying on the floor, for soup at home. Who would have recognised in him that perfect Englishman of yesteryears.
Never mind, always treading on, Covent Garden. All London lies shrouded in a haze of its own, rich and poor districts, like an exploition of something dirty and dark, and coloured blood-red inside, the ciitizens’ souls, as behooves the wealthy capital of an empire based on world trade, crime and murder.
‘Stop thief!’ the poor victm still shouts. ‘Stop thief!’ all the citizens in unison chime. As for Thomas Barker, he sees at the end of the lane, turning the corner, the little boy he saw that very morning sweeping the mud away, for the gentlemen and the ladies wanting to cross to the other pavement.
Night comes quickly in this season. A few stragglers linger beneath the windows of the rich, listening to the strains of music. Two uniformed lackeys stand at the porticoed entrance of the well-illuminated mansion. And when the oaken door opens to let in new arrivals, the ordinary Londoners see the light, the marble staircase, the mahogany balustrades. Policemen watch in the street from the opposite pavement. In the working districts, however, ex-workers are dying on heaps of straw or on the damp floor of miserable homes. Some, in employment, are dying from the lead-fumes or other poisons in the factories and workshops. ‘What d’ye want, better to die of the poisoning for a shilling a week than to see your children starving. Yes, actually dying at that moment.’
And once more a rainy morning. Plunged into the the noise and tumult of Covent Garden. Oh luck, the ground is now full of living matter. And clotted blood where sheep are being sacrificed, to sell meat at once to the servants of the great and wealthy. A beautiful gentlewoman accompanied by two servants. No meat to be had for love or money: Tom gathers other living matter rotting on the ground: some greens he can see quite clearly, some still edible potatoes, lettuce leaves, a rotten orange still full of vitamins. He stoops low, stretches his long arm, catches the prize and slips it in his roughcloth sack. He rests a minute, listening to the chiming of the bells of Saint Clement’s nearby. The sound has the effect of cheering him for the time being. ‘Well… done! Well… done!’ God talking to an Englishman who yesterday was making sure there existed Freedom of the Sea’ warring in foreign lands…
And he thinks of the bleak misery of his present life, the poor room in a house by the river, his ever-loving Joan. She’ll be at this hour preparing another poultice to apply on the fiery chest of their daughter Eliza, Danny running freely in the streets of the City, learning something that may lead him to…
‘Heavens above!’ he hears a cry at the same time as he feels a friendly touch on the shoulder. ‘Goodness gracious me! Lieutenant, what’s happened to you?’
Tom turns his gaze round, and tears flow suddenly down his hollow ckeeks, as he shouts: ‘Bill Swallow! Oh, so many years! Time does wear wings, my God! How do you do, dear friend?’ For he has recognised the man who saved him from dying in the mire during the terrible siege of Szczecin, on the Continent.
They enter a tavern in St. Giles, where there is more filth and squalid misery than in any other part of the mighty city of London. A big smoky hall, the old building falling in decay, full of people in rags. The place is also full of rotten, wine, or beer: alcohol. Drunken men aplenty with some malcontent women. Wagon-carriers taking a one-day rest, with a girl in a corner. Tom and Bill sit with the others at a long thick oak-table each one with a tumbler, on a bench, sharing a bottle of liquor, chatting. ‘What have you been doing, Bill my boy, all these years since we stopped waging war?’ Tom asks, cheering up.
And Bill Swallow, after emptying a tumbler full of brandy-and-water, started telling his sad story from the beginning. He had finished quite succesfully his apprenticeship with a master cabinet-maker, at the age of nineteen, and was working on his own in the East End, when he met the nicest of women in the world, Gladys Powel, whom in due course he married and they had a child, when one day, a battalion of red-coated soldiers press-ganged him into the navy and two years he spent in the war. When he came back, once peace was restored, dear Gladys was the mother of three kids. And what was Bill Swallow to do? ‘You tell me Lieutenant Parker, what was a man to do, run after her with a kitchen hatchet and kill her? No, lieutenant, but accept the girl and three kids.’
It was not until the two ex-mariners had shuffled for a while through the streets that William Swallow, lowering his voice, suggested. ‘Lieutenant, let’s unite our efforts, a partnership.’ The ex-sailor now revealed to the ex-officer a plan that had been maturing in his mind since their encounter in Covent Garden. They had to unite forces, my word, to be sure of profit.
A most successful enterprise the Cockney chappie had in view. If the two now joined efforts as partners. Bill had been living all these months with his Gladys and four kiddies out of what others called petty thievery. Now was the time to go and found a joint, ‘Real profit, lieut... Tom.’ Lowering his voice still more, he explained things. They shook hands on it, and the parnership thus constituted started operating with great success, for it was a cold moonless night when former Royal Navy officer led his partner, an expert in burglary, to a place where he had long ago been a young sentry, the Royal Navy depots in Sheerness Bay. They jumped the wall, got into the adequate places and took good stuff: cables, anchors and other things. Bill had borrowed a wagon from a friend which they had left hidden in a silver birch wood not far away.
Three nights they repeated the operation quite successfully, giving themselves a long rest between each successive raid. They sold the stolen material to good professionals and made a good profit. But the fourth night they were caught by the guards and thown into jail. They were judged and condemned to be transported for life to Australia. The poor partners in trade were not even given a chance to say goodbye to their respective families.
It was such the state of my mind, my nerves, moral, inner feelngs those days, that I knew I was going to collapse again… and again I needed her.’ How blind I have been,’ I said to myself. Blind and lonely. My novel about Valladolid, too, had been a disaster. ‘The War of Spain?’ It interested nobody. No mainstream publisher made any offer. Writing my novel and a short story simultaneously, often at night, in my North Sydney flat, was madness. My work at the office had also multiplied. I had to phone her. ‘Hello! Angela?’ ‘Yes, who’s calling?’ I heard at the other end of the line. ‘It’s me. Miguel.’ Silence. Nothing but a sob, then a cry: ‘Who?’ and a moan. ‘Angela!!’ ‘Oh, is it you… you?’ a sigh followed by confused sounds. ‘Mi… Miiigu…’ And I thought ‘Oh, gosh! She’s weeping. What have I done?’ ‘Miiii… oh my… Miguel! Is it you, you…?’ and renewed sobs. ‘Angela! darling, my darling!’ And she replying only with sobs. ‘Angela, are you there?’ I cried in despair. ‘Oh, darling, please, say something,’ I cried with apprehension. ‘Angela, have I done wrong? should I not have called? If there is another man?’ And the same silence, except sobs. ‘Angela, dear,’ I implored, ‘tell me and I’ll hang up.’ ‘Oh,no! Oh Miguel, my only love! what have you done to me. Why did you not let me tell you? It is true… I love no other man… I never have.’ ‘In the name of all that is dear and sacred, please, my pretty Angela, let me… I want you, I love you, I adore you.’ ‘Me too, I want you, Miguel. That day... It was a mistake, darling, he just wanted to recover some tools and be gone.’ She spoke this time, I thought, bitterly. ‘Angela, please, my love, forgive me, tell me I can visit you.’ ‘My dear Miguel, I’ve been hoping to hear from you. Come when you want, please… quickly.’
That Sunday, as we got up from bed, she prepared the big hamper, I the esky and the briefcase as in former times. We drove in her car to the beach.
‘Couldn’t the bolters have got food from the blackfellas? I understand avoiding the cabin dwellers, but to go without… with nothing… into the Australian forest.’
‘The blackfellas, as you say, had long before either been exterminated or pushed into the outback. Now Miguel, I’ll dictate, you write.’ ‘Go on, dear.’
‘Knots of people stood upon the London wharf, gazing at a rosary of chained men, recently sentenced to be transported overseas. The mouth of the Thames was studded with boats of all sorts; coal and timber barges, either berthed in the little coves on both sides of the river or making their way in or out of London. In the Bay of Sheerness the condemed men were seen in two rows: elements of the chain and bolt, they numbered two hundred and fifty-one; about a third of them were mere boys, some under the age of fifteen. Chained separately were five unlucky women whom the guards had picked up walking the streets at night.
Suddenly a most terrible howl filled the grey air. ‘Get moving!’ a voice of cold command as if shouting to dogs. The convicts stepped forward, each one carrying his fetters in his hands, marching along up a slope made of wooden planks which led to the gangway. Sailors were on the ship, operating the rigs and cables. Far away, an orange sun shone beneath the clouds.
As Tom marched up the slope, chain-and-bolt in hand like the others, he noticed that the young fellow next to him was weeping (‘Pass us some pudding, Ma!’) and he at once recognised the young chap, a ship’s boy during the continental wars, a Dubliner who had at fourteen been press-ganged and sent under the imperial colours. And recalling those sad moments, the siege of Szczecin, where he had been wounded defending the Crown’s interests, he would have liked ro talk to the Irish fellow. As he entered, limping, the transportation vessel he lost sight of him: a detachment of King’s soldiers was separating the convicts. On the deck, three distinguished ladies were watching: probably the wife of the captain and his lieutenant, and young women recently married to some official or army officer assigned to the Australian colony. The convicts went from the gangway straight away down into the holds, where they would remained locked up until the ship reached the Isle of St. Helena. Tom lost sight not only of the Irishman (he now recalled his name, Jimmy), but of his friend Bill as well. After the island in the middle of the Atlantic, a voyage of another twelve thousand miles to the other side of the world would commence (after berthing at Cape Town, where three male convicts were added to the charge.)
The clipper then entered the Indian Ocean, a region of great turbulence, with rains and gale-force winds. Some convicts, who had been sailors in the past, were brought out of the holds, to help. Barker, Swallow and O’Bryant rejoiced, though, if they made a mistake, they knew they would be sentenced to lashes.
On arrival at Hobart Town, on the twenty-ninth of October, 1829, the convicts were solemnly received on the wharf by Governor Arthur in person, who addressed the poor suffering convicts in formation, under a pale sun, as follows.
‘Men who are sober, industrious and steady may reasonably expect a ticket-of-leave, employment in the police and ultimately emancipation and freedom. On the other hand, he whose misconduct or habits of drunkenness involves him in wickedness and ruin can expect little else than assignment to hard labour on the roads or in the forest, a hundred lashes, the treadmill, confinement to a dark dungeon and, last, the gallows.’ The King’s soldiers were watching, in formation.
‘It is a fact, Miguel, that within twenty years of the arrival of the First Fleet,’ Angela was saying, ‘no Aboriginal tribe, group or individual remained in these parts, and it was worse in Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land.’
‘I’m not disputing that; but I’ve read somewhere that our five escapees were assisted somewhere by a tribe of blackfellas,’ I replied, diverging from my companion’s thesis. ‘Well, never mind. We have said they had been felling timber for a month; and were residing temporarily in the middle of a forest, a convicts’ encampment.’ It was very cold during the winter there. Bill Swallow and Tom Barker chose well the moment. They wore big coats made of kangaroo skin. One night the four men - for they had got a very strong Scotsman, Leslie Ferguson, to join them, and Tom had suggested they should take the young chap, Jimmy O’Bryant -, slipped out of one of the barracks and ran to the rocks, where the forest reached the sea. To their great surprise, they found a fifth man had been following them: they thought he was a spy. ‘No, don’t fear me,’ the man shouted. ‘It’s only Philip Murray,’ said Tom. A thorough-bred Englishman from Belfast, convicted for fraud, they embraced him and soon found they had done well to accept him; being a cook, he had been serving in the kitchen of the camp, and had come out with a sack full of food rations and a hatchet. They proceeded, the five runaways, along the coastline towards Hobart Port. Four hours previously the original four had all bolted separately, and had gathered in a pre-arranged spot, just before the surprise of a fifth one.
The five runaways entered the wharves at Hobart Town when dawn was rising, and they hid for eight hours among the cordage, tackle, rigging and other maritime material in the port. They all knew that there was very severe punishment for convicts who tried to evade (some even died in the port under the whip, if they were caught.) This was the reason why the guards, in winter, forgot to watch at times, and slept in their sentry boxes instead.
And so, our men were lucky. When they were approaching one of the jetties, one of the guards, hearing something, came out to see. He was going to give the alert, when Ferguson, a giant of corpulent strength, caught him round the neck from behind and smothered him in an instant. At once the five took possession of a one-mast boat, a small brigantine. Two of the runaways were excellent sailors, a third also had served some years, as a boy, in the Royal Navy. Nevertheless, other guards appeared at the last moment on the jetty and sent a shower of bullets after the stolen vessel, which splashed harmlessly in some water, though some bullets came very close to the brigantine.
Forgetting the incident, the five tried hard and put out to sea. They knew there would be an order of capture sent by the military to all the towns and garrisons of the colony. As soon as they could, they veered north-east towards New Zealand, for they knew there were some coves in the South Island where Nantucket whalers would have established their camps for the season. These would hide them if they reached one of the camps. The night was absolutely pitch-black. The wind was leading them to the South Island. By midnight the bolters had got a very big start, in any case. Every man at his post, each one doing exactly what was expected of him. ‘For all intents and purposes,’ Barker, the captain, said, ‘our brigantine has gone away, now and forever, from the claws of the Royal Navy.’ The escapees were delighted, embracing one another, when the wind unexpectedly changed and the weather turned to storm. In another moment the wind became of gale force. A gigantic mass of water kept flying up and coming down on the poop of the ship. The sea swept Philip Murray away. Jimmy O’Bryant gave the alert, and Ferguson was just about to jump into the turbulent waters and swim after the disappeared man when Barker retained him, holding him by his arm. ‘Nothing doing, Leslie,’ he howled above the roaring wind. Swallow came to help Tom. The strength of the gale increased and the boat, which had first veered to the right, along with the Tasman-sea currents, then veered left towards the Colony of New South Wales. Someone said what everyone thought. ‘Hope we can reach one of the South Sea islands and live with friendly natives over there.’
The single mast had been broken during the fierce moments of the storm and the sails all gone with the wind. The four mariners were hoping against hope, for they were entirely at the mercy of heaven. They now ran into heavy westerly winds, which took them north-east for a while, then the wind changed and was directing them towards the New South Wales coast. The wretched men saw land approaching. It was dawning. There was a sandy beach, a high cliff where the sands ended was visible, and a rocky promontory at either side. For a time the miserable men saw the coast approaching slowly, then at great speed. They prayed to God Above that their crippled boat be sent away from the rocks onto the sandy beach, where (they saw) the terrible rollers were turning into fearful roaring breakers. Tom Barker managed to steer the boat, which he sent flying above the immense mass of water. And dived down on the wet sand. There was an immense thumping sound, all the same, the wreckage split into two portions and the four men found themselves in the middle of beach, wet and in tatters on the soft sand, surrounded by driftwood.
At night when three absconded convicts entered the forest, after having run for a long time upon scrubland, from the edge of the cliff to the forested hills, it was very hot. Leslie Ferguson, who had slipped at the very end of the ascent of the cliff, was no more, having lost hold of the stone he was temporarily touching and fatally falling into the void. The other three could see his body smashed against the rocks on the sands below. When the three finally arrived, they found how hard their lot was to be: having penetrated about five hundred feet, inside the forest, the three dropped down exhausted among brambles and leaves and fell asleep, holding each one his machete, their sole possession.
The forest had thick undergrowth and spiky bushes; and their clothes, already torn by the storm at sea, were now reduced to tatters. The following morning they advanced among the trees, machete in hand, until they could not go any more, the big eucalypts now grown so close together that they had to stop to reconsider. Besides, what was left of the rations, brought out by Murray, had gone to the winds during the gales. In the forest they found little to eat in the way of fruits from the trees or bushes or other vegetation. Nothing nourishing could be found in the undergrowth, and the leaves from the trees looked rather like knifes than anything substantial. A primeval forest!! No fruit, no berries, nothing edible at all. And there were very few animals of any sort, save insects, big poisonous spiders and invisible snakes crawling under the dry undergrowth. Luckily for them, on the third night it rained torrentially and they could at least quench their thirst filling their stomachs with a reddish water that they perceived running in rivulets under the leaves and other living matter. It now only remained to look for something to eat. But nothing from the vegetable kingdom, leaves, bark, roots or the tender branches, say, of small bushes. No rabbit either, nor marsupial; no bird or squirrel, no koala bear, nothing alive was found that they could hunt and might satisfy their needs. Until on the third day, miraculously, a big lizard happened to cross their path. It stopped its timid course, as if surprised to see never-seen human elements. The boy Jimmy jumped on it, his nails ready like a wild cat, and caught the precious prey. Swallow, an expert in kindling fires rubbing two dry sticks together over a bed of dry leaves and twigs, made a fire; they roasted the lizard and cut it ceremonially into so many morsels.
During the whole day they went on using their machetes all the time. Tom and Jimmy were soon left behind, for Bill was all the time forging ahead. Soon Tom had to help the boy, whose strength was giving way all the time, probably because he needed more than the others in the way of nourishment. Until the young man could not advance any more. He died on the ground, howling spasmodically, ‘Oh God, please! Mum, come’an give’s a hand! When’re ye goin’ to get a cake cooked?’ Two days Thomas Barker stayed labouring nearby, first with his hands removing leaves and briar and other undergrowth, until he reached bare ground. With his machete he made a hole for his friend’s body, filled it with sand and briar, and remained seated on the ground for a long time, then stood up and got on the move. Three or four times he cried out loudly: ‘Bill!! Bill Swallow!!’ But only the echo responded.
‘Now, you tell me, Angela, what do you think of the story?’ ‘I have told you, Miguel,’ she replied, ‘But I’m sure you no longer doubt about the existence of a Tom Barker. However, let me read to you, my dear. No, not from Stephensen’s book. Another one. Three days he kept trudging on through the forest, at times moving fast, other times very slowly, sometimes not at all, and always very sad, but not in despair, for he had already accepted death. In his mind he rebelled against an evil force he just perceived and could not quite define. Half-resting his back against the trunk of a eucalypt, bending his head forward, he clutched with two hands his brows and set up such a shriek that all the living matter around him appeared to comprehend in the shriek what human misery was… and trembled. And yet, even at that hapless moment, happy memories flashed in his brain, that vision of their wedding, and in the coach through the streets of Liverpool and later on, carrying her in his arms, a most lovely bride in white, her long black hair flowing down, her smiling blue eyes. She was afraid, and yet somehow she laughed with happiness.
… ‘Oh, Joan, my Joan, my purest love!’ he called and the trees around him seemed to become more menacing. She was just twenty-one, he had her in his arms, in their bed. ‘Please my Tom, be gentle, do not hurt me,’ she pleaded. ‘Please!’ ‘I love you so!’
… No, it was not a blast of thunder he had heard in his sleep, but the sound of music, the feeling once again of her naked body against his. He remembered she had turned round to kiss him. ‘Oh Tom, music! Oh music, music!
… The light of day was entering through an oblong window situated very near the ceiling. A rich fanfare of music and life was passing by, to celebrate no doubt their union.
…‘Oh, Tom! musicians and athletes and clowns and horse-riders! It must be a famous circus passing by in the street.’ ‘Announcing, my pretty Joan, something graceful and beautiful and very much what you deserve, my adorable one!’
… From the bed where he was lying Tom could see the horse’s hoofs painted gold, the pointed footwear of the clowns, and athletes; the legs of many men and women parading; the golden tips of saxophones; a dancing bear covered with ribbons, and little yellow monkeys.
… She had scuttled over the bedding and jumped upon a chest of drawers, from where she could just reach the elongated window, lifting the length of her extraordinary alabaster body on tiptoe; and in her nudity she was so charming, with her shiny black hair almost reaching down to her waist.
… He jumped out of bed, clambered upon the dressing table and pressed against the lovely curves of her body. She turned round and their eyes met.
One thing Thomas Richard Barker, sitting on the ground against the trunk of a giant tree, knew for sure, he would love his adored wife until he ceased to exist.
Lack of nourishment and water was causing him unbearable physical pain. But even in so dire straits her sole remembrance would save him from turning into an irrational monster. Theirs had been a wonderful life, and if all that had been would now disappear, he resigned himself. For he had not lived in vain.
He died knowing where the root of all evil was. He had at the age of sixteen joined the Royal Navy, thinking that he was honourably discharging his duty as an Englishman. But he was to discover in time that the notion he had had of honour was a false one. All lies! Lies that had been imbued in his brain from outside. False principles which led to the exploitation of the poor by the rich, accumulation of wealth by the latter, the suffering of the masses and the end of the Earth besides. ‘Oh, my darling Joan, I know you will teach our Eliza and Danny this fundamental truth!’ he shouted to the winds.
‘For me,’ was saying my Angela, looking at me, with that sweet smile on her face, ‘the doubt remains about Barker. Why all historians…’ ‘Save one, my dear,’ I interrupted her, ‘I know what you’re going to say.’ ‘… all right,’ she went on, ‘why no historian mentions him, except the one you’ve mentioned?’
‘I’m going to tell you why, Angela. Because he was a very intelligent man, and because he belonged to their own class, I mean the bourgeoisie, if not the aristocracy. The reactionaries never forgive that. They condemn you to cold oblivion, or, as they say in my mother tongue, which sounds better: le envían a uno al olvido eterno por ser inteliigente. I think this notion already came to me when I was a child. There was in my country a war (following a military uprising against a socialist-democratic republic, that is to say against the people, during which the first thing the fascists did was eliminate systematically all or almost all the teachers, all the learned men and women, all true philosophers and thinkers, and all those who could lead the people towards the real revolution.’
We had been playing tennis at Glebe Jubilee Park, and she was still wearing her little white dress, with a shiny lace panty underneath. Nobody would have said she was five months pregnant. We had bought this small property in Glebe, just a cottage in a terrace, some three months before.
As I was following her towards the kitchen, I had to pass in the lounge two bookcases I had just built, and caught sight of my novel on one of the shelves. A mere manuscript tidily bound at the bookbinder’s round the corner. ‘Bah, who cares?’ I said to myself. ‘The War of Spain, Valladolid, A good idea, but it didn’t work. If it can’t be… Well! Full stop. Besides, we have been united, the two of us, working and thinking together that we were doing some good thing. That is all.