The Lieutenant: Extract

…One of the women was walking towards the doorway of his hut. He made exaggerated ushering gestures. Come in, come in, welcome, I am pleased to see you! He was glad there was no one there to watch him. The woman did not respond to the pantomime. Her dignity made his eagerness seem false.

She went into the hut and glanced around as if it were not so very interesting. She called back over her shoulder to the others, a few curt syllables, and they crowded into the hut. They inspected his domestic arrangements, murmuring to each other. One of the women picked up a corner of the grey blanket over the bed and held it to her cheek, exclaiming, he thought, at the scratchy texture. They ran their long-fingered hands over the gleaming wood of the table, touched at the brass hinges where the legs folded. They lifted the cover of Montaigne and turned the pages.

He wondered if they were saying: Look, he has bark here in a little square.

Would they have the idea of square? Would some wild Euclid among them have pondered the marvels of the triangle?

Even in that tight space they had a remarkable way of not meeting his eye. They moved around him and he guessed that they were not speaking out loudly because he was there. And yet he was not there.

His first day at the Academy, Lancelot Percival had told him scornfully, Rooke, in polite circles you do not speak to a person to whom you have not been introduced!

The children had been hiding themselves behind the legs of the women, peeping around at Rooke and retreating if he looked at them. Now he caught the eye of a little boy, a sturdy fellow of five or six, who ducked back behind his mother's leg but then looked out again. Rooke smiled and even tried a wink, and by degrees the boy grew brave enough to dart out and touch one of the brass buttons on Rooke's jacket, dabbing at it as if it might be hot. Discovering that the button did not bite, he lost his shyness entirely, dancing around Rooke, plucking at his sleeve, pulling at his buttons and by the look of it shouting something to the effect of, What are these? What are they for? Where did you get them? Can I have one?

The women became bolder, holding things up to show each other as if they were goods at a market to be exclaimed over. They spoke to him, finding it hilarious to say the few words they must have already learned from the people in the settlement: `Goodbye! Goodbye! How do you do! Mister! Missus!'

`Good morning, good morning,' Rooke replied, making them laugh even more. `I do very well, thank you, and you?'

Hi shaving things lay on the table and one of the women - tall, full-figured, so magnificent in her nakedness that Rooke was a little shy - picked up his razor and bent it open. He sprang across the hut to snatch it away from her and all the amusement stopped on the instant. He tried to show them how sharp it was, cut a twig from beside the fire with the blade and kept up a stream of words - sharp, you see, very sharp, it will cut anything, I use it to shave, see here? - out of some instinct that speech was less frightening than silence.

The hut, ill-lit at the best of times with its single window, grew dark. Rooke saw that clouds had gathered low and black, and it began to rain, fat drops hitting the shingles hard enough to make them rattle. A smell of cold mud rose up from the ground.

He went to the doorway and looked out. The rain hurled itself down against the rocks so violently it created a sort of spume. Under its force the bushes lashed about and the water of the harbour was almost invisible, the rain as thick as fog. He caught a few drops on his palm, held it out to his visitors.

`What is this, how do you say wet?'

The two young girls had hung back up till now, but one came forward and touched at his palm with the point of an index finger. Rooke looked into her face. She was perhaps ten or twelve years old, skinny and quick, with a long graceful neck and an expressive mobile face. He thought he saw in her the same impulses he was feeling himself: excitement tempered by wariness, the desire to explore held in check by the fear of making a wrong move.

She looked straight into his eyes and her mouth made a wry pout, equal parts frustration and amusement. He felt his own lips form an answering shape and saw her watching him - his eyes, his mouth, the look on his face - reading him in just the same way he was trying to read her.

She was like Ann had been at ten or twelve, was his instant thought. Dark-skinned, naked, she was nothing like Anne, yet he recognised his sister in her: old enough to want to look into another's eyes, one human to another, and still young enough to be fearless.

She touched his palm again, this time with all her fingertips, stroking his skin as if to test its texture. Over the roar of the rain she said something. Like a deaf man, he watched her lips moving around the stream of words. Then she stopped and waited, her teeth resting on her lower lip in a way that said, more clearly than words, Well? What do you make of that?

He strained to separate some of the sounds, snatching at two that had surfaced clearly enough to be repeated.

`Mar-ray,' he tried.

She smiled, her entire face involved in the act. He had thought her eyes black, but now he saw they were the deepest brown. To look so freely into the eyes of another felt as dangerous as leaping from a height. He was amazed at such recklessness in himself.

`Marray,' she said again, pointing with her chin towards the rain beyond the doorway.

Marray. What did it mean? Wet, something like that?

So close to her, with the water cascading over the shingles above the door and pouring onto the ground, it seemed awkward to say nothing.

`What a downpour,' he said, raising his voice against the din. `Have you ever seen such weather?'

He listened ruefully to the drawing-room sound of that. It was the sort of small talk he could seldom manage when it was appropriate, yet here he was, doing it as deftly as Silk might have, for an audience of six naked women and children with whom he shared, so far, one word.

Forthright, fearless, sure of herself, she looked to him like a girl who had already mastered whatever social skills her world might demand.


He could hear the way she was speaking slowly, making it easy for him. He tried to turn the sounds into syllables but could only get as far as the first few. She repeated each one and he said them after her. It was like being taken by the hand and helped step by step in the dark.


Even when he had it, it did not sound quite the way she said it. There was something smothered or woolly, a slurring or legato quality to the word as she said it, that he could imitate. He could hear it, but his mouth did not know how to make it.

Still, everyone smiled and nodded at him and cried words that he assumed were along the lines of, Well done! Congratulations!

So that was the word, or perhaps words. But what did it, or they, mean? Something to do with the rain, but what, exactly? What a downpour! Have you ever seen such weather?

The rain eased and stopped as abruptly as it had begun. The little boy pushed past Rooke's legs and ran out. Two of the women followed more slowly. Rooke and the girl watched them splashing up the track, now a streaming torrent that gleamed in the rays of sun already emerging from the clouds.

`Yen-narr-abe', the girl said. `Yennarrabe.'

`Yennarrabe,' he repeated.

Her mouth twisted, perhaps in amusement at the way he way it sounded. They said it to each other a few times. For the moment it was enough to pass the echo backwards and forwards. Even without knowing their meaning, the fact of exchanging words was a kind of message: I wish to speak with you.

The girl's face was so expressive, the sense of her personality so vivid, that Rooke's instinct was to take a step back and look away. But he did not. With a reckless sense of taking a leap, he laid the palm of his hand on his chest.

`Rooke,' he said. `Daniel Rooke.'

She caught on straight away and made a good approximation of his name. Then she put her hand flat on her own bony chest. Uttered a couple of syllables he could not properly catch.

`Ta-ra,' he tried.

Over at the fire the other girl laughed behind her hand and he heard her mimic his effort.

He rolled his eyes, grimaced. Yes, what an idiot I am, but harmless.

He tried again and the girl went slowly until the shapeless sound resolved itself into syllables: Ta-ga-ran.

The word he was making was still not quite the same as the one she had said. But he saw her face open with the pleasure of hearing her name in his foreign mouth, and at having been the one to teach him.

Her name and those two other utterances were in his mind now, but, as sounds not connected to anything, they would soon lose their shape in his memory. They were not Wind or Weather or Barometer, but like those, these words were part of the climate of the place, data that ought to be recorded.

He got down an unused notebook from the shelf, felt the girl watching as he sat at the table, dipped the pen in the ink and opened the book. On the first page, in his neatest astronomer's hand, he wrote:Tagaran, the name of a girl. Marray, wet. Paye wallan ill labe - he hesitated - concerning heavy rain.

He read the words back to her, his finger under each syllable, stumbling through. She smiled, her face transformed, every part of it involved in the great beam of delight.

The old woman was calling out something. It might have been, Come children, time to go, because they all left soon after. At the foot of the rocks, Tagaran turned.

`Yenioo! Yenioo!' she called, and he called back.

`Goodbye, goodbye!'

What else could she have meant?

`Come again,' he called. `Come again soon, you are always welcome!'

But they were gone. He was farewelling the grass tossing in the breeze.

(p 144-151) 

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