Sarah Thornhill: Extracts

"The Hawkesbury was a lovely river, wide and calm, the water dimply green, the cliffs golden in the sun, and white birds roosting in the trees like so much washing. It was a sweet thing of a still morning, the river-oaks whispering and the land standing upside down in the water.
            They called us the Colony of new South Wales. I never liked that. We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves.
            The Hawkesbury was where the ones come that was sent out. Soon’s they got they freedom, this was where they headed. Fifty miles out of Sydney and not a magistrate or a police to be seen. A man could pick out a bit of ground, get a hut up, never look back.
            You heard that a lot. Never looked back.
Pa started a boatman on the Thames. Then he was sent out, what for I never knew. Eighteen-oh-six, Alexander transport. I was a pestering sort of child but that was all he’d ever say, sitting in the armchair smiling away at nothing and smoothing the nap of the velvet.
            When you done as well as Pa had, no one said sent out or worn the broad arrow. Now he was what they called an old colonist. Still plenty of folk who wouldn’t put their feet under the same table as an emancipist or invite him into their house. As far as some people went, sent out meant tainted for all time. You and your children and your children’s children. But for other folk, money had a way of blunting the hard shapes of the past. Dressing it up in different words.
            Pa was Mr Thornhill of Thornhill’s Point now, but he had some habits that were from that past he never spoke about. Of an afternoon he’d get a bit of bread and go out on the verandah. Sit on a hard bench beside the window with the telescope up to his eye. He’d look across the river up at the line of bush along the top of the cliffs. Nothing up there, only rocks and trees and sky, but he’d sit by the house watching and watching, I never knew what for, the leather worn through the brass where his hand clamped round it so hard.
            Will and Jack sailed together on the sealing boats over to New Zealand.  The two of them like brothers, everything about them on a grand scale, both of them deep in the chest and wide across the shoulder.
      Those years split up into the times Will and Jack was away, and the times they was back.  Another kind of day and night, only months long. With them gone it was a dull old time.  I'd wake up early but wished I hadn't, the day stretching out too long.  So many people in the house, but empty somehow.
       I turned thirteen and started to get a womanly shape.  My body was becoming someone else's, and my self too, but body and self neither settled yet into their shapes.  I was out of sorts, waiting to catch up with myself.
       Have you got worms, Ma said.  You're restless as a cat.
       Came at me with the oopening medicine, so I made myself sit still after that.
       I was sitting on the front steps one afternoon, Pa behind me on the bench.  I was staring out at nothing, wishing but not knowing what I was wishing, when I heard the bench fall over, Pa jumping up so quick.
       Will! Will's home! he shouted. 
       When we got down to the jetty we could see the boat, still way off down the end of the reach.  The sail hanging slack from the yard, the people on board no bigger than ants.  One of them must be Will.  And one of the others would be Jack.
       That thought - Jack! - brought something into my throat, as if I'd run too hard.  I knew then what I hadn't known all those months of mooning about.  It was Jack I was waiting for. 
       Give us the telescope, Pa, I said.  So's I can see.
       I slanted down too fast, missed the boat,  tracked along the blue ripples and there was the old grey wood of Emily, and up on the bow, leaning forward as if to get to us quicker, there he was.  Jack.  Black hair glistening in the sun, beard so thick it hid most of his face.  Looking staright at me.  I waved and he waved back, even though I must of been nothing more than a shape with an arm coming out of it. 
       When the boat got up to us at last, Jack jumped across the last yard of water, didn't wait for them to tie the boat up.  So light on his feet for such a big man.  Landed next to me neat as a cat. 
       Well, he said.  It's Sarah Thornhill, I do believe. 
       The same as I remembered, his eyes crinkled up with smiling.
       Still want to marry me, Sarah Thornhill?  The humour of that old joke from my childhood was on Jack's face, he took a breath, his mouth started the words.  But then he saw the new shape of me and changed his mind.  The words hung between us.
       It was nothing.  A silence the length of a heartbeat, and Jack's eyes looking into mine.  But it said Everything is different now. 
       When the others walked up to the house the two of us hung back.  We'd walked up that track together a hundred times before but I'd never had to think before how you walked beside someone.  How much space did you leave between you?  Did you touch them as you walked, did your hand brush against theirs as it swung backwards and forwards, and exactly how did you breathe?
        In the parlour I made sure I ended up next to Jack on the sofa, but making it look like chance. When an ember flew from the grate I put out my foot to snuff it.  New boots from Abercrombie's, buttons up the side, made my feet very small.  Took my time with the ember and when I sat back I saw Jack was smiling to himself. 
       They'd had a dangerous time of it. Not enough seals, so they had to stay too long, past the good season, and the storms caught up with them. 
       Damn near come to grief, Will said.  That right Jack?
       But Jack was smiling at the fire, and I was the only one who knew why he wasn't listening, because my hip was jammed up tight against his and where we touched, something was running from his body into mine and from mine into his. "