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Love contemporaryMcCulloughThorn Birdsthe rugged Australian Outback, three extraordinary generations of Clearys live through joy and sadness, bitter defeat and - 38


“How’s the cutting, Luke?” he asked, shoveling eggs and bacon onto his plate.
“If I said I liked it, would you believe me?” Luke laughed, heaping his own plate.’s shrewd eyes rested on the handsome face, and he nodded. “Oh, yes. You’ve got the right sort of temperament and the right sort of body, I think. It makes you feel better than other men, superior to them.” Caught in his heritage of cane fields, far from academia and with no chance of exchanging one for the other, Luddie was an ardent student of human nature; he read great fat tomes bound in Morocco leather with names on their spines like Freud and Jung, Huxley and Russell.
“I was beginning to think you were never going to come and see Meggie,” Anne said, spreading ghee on her toast with a brush; it was the only way they could have butter up here, but it was better than none.
“Well, Arne and I decided to work on Sundays for a while. Tomorrow we’re off to Ingham.”
“Which means poor Meggie won’t see you too often.”
“Meg understands. It won’t be for more than a couple of years, and we do have the summer layoff. Arne says he can get me work at the CSR in Sydney then, and I might take Meg with me.”
“Why do you have to work so hard, Luke?” asked Anne.
“Got to get the money together for my property out west, around Kynuna. Didn’t Meg mention it?”
“I’m afraid our Meggie’s not much good at personal talk. You tell us, Luke.”three listeners sat watching the play of expression on the tanned, strong face, the glitter of those very blue eyes; since he had come before breakfast Meggie hadn’t uttered a word to anyone. On and on he talked about the marvelous country Back of Beyond; the grass, the big grey brolga birds mincing delicately in the dust of Kynuna’s only road, the thousands upon thousands of flying kangaroos, the hot dry sun.
“And one day soon a big chunk of all that is going to be mine. Meg’s put a bit of money toward it, and at the pace we’re working it won’t take more than four or five years. Sooner, if I was content to have a poorer place, but knowing what I can earn cutting sugar, I’m tempted to cut a bit longer and get a really decent bit of land.” He leaned forward, big scarred hands around his teacup. “Do you know I nearly passed Arne’s tally the other day? Eleven tons I cut in one day!”’s whistle was genuinely admiring, and they embarked upon a discussion of tallies. Meggie sipped her strong dark milkless tea. Oh, Luke! First it had been a couple of years, now it was four or five, and who knew how long it would be the next time he mentioned a period of years? Luke loved it, no one could mistake that. So would he give it up when the time came? Would he? For that matter, did she want to wait around to find out? The Muellers were very kind and she was far from overworked, but if she had to live without a husband, Drogheda was the best place. In the month of her stay at Himmelhoch she hadn’t felt really well for one single day; she didn’t want to eat, she suffered bouts of painful diarrhea, she seemed dogged by lethargy and couldn’t shake it off. Not used to feeling anything but tiptop well, the vague malaise frightened her.breakfast Luke helped her wash the dishes, then took her for a walk down to the nearest cane field, talking all the time about the sugar and what it was like to cut it, what a beaut life it was out in the open air, what a beaut lot of blokes they were in Arne’s gang, how different it was from shearing, and how much better.turned and walked up the hill again; Luke led her into the exquisitely cool cavern under the house, between the piles. Anne had made a conservatory out of it, stood pieces of terracotta pipe of differing lengths and girths upright, then filled them with soil and planted trailing, dangling things in them; orchids of every kind and color, ferns, exotic creepers and bushes. The ground was soft and redolent of wood chips; great wire baskets hung from the joists overhead, full of ferns or orchids or tuberoses; staghorns in bark nests grew on the piles; magnificent begonias in dozens of brilliant colors had been planted around the bases of the pipes. It was Meggie’s favorite retreat, the one thing of Himmelhoch’s she preferred to anything of Drogheda’s. For Drogheda could never hope to grow so much on one small spot; there just wasn’t enough moisture in the air.
“Isn’t this lovely, Luke? Do you think perhaps after a couple of years up here we might be able to rent a house for me to live in? I’m dying to try something like this for myself.”
“What on earth do you want to live alone in a house for? This isn’t Gilly, Meg; it’s the sort of place where a woman on her own isn’t safe. You’re much better off here, believe me. Aren’t you happy here?”
“I’m as happy as one can be in someone else’s home.”
“Look, Meg, you’ve just got to be content with what you have now until we move out west. We can’t spend money renting houses and having you live a life of leisure and still save. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, Luke.”was so upset he didn’t do what he had intended to do when he led her under the house, namely kiss her. Instead he gave her a casual smack on the bottom which hurt a little too much to be casual, and set off down the road to the spot where he had left his bike propped against a tree. He had pedaled twenty miles to see her rather than spend money on a rail motor and a bus, which meant he had to pedal twenty miles back.
“The poor little soul!” said Anne to Luddie. “I could kill him!”came and went, the slackest month of the year for cane cutters, but there was no sign of Luke. He had murmured about taking Meggie to Sydney, but instead he went to Sydney with Arne and without her. Arne was a bachelor and had an aunt with a house in Rozelle, within walking distance (no tram fares; save money) of the CSR, the Colonial Sugar Refineries. Within those gargantuan concrete walls like a fortress on a hill, a cutter with connections could get work. Luke and Arne kept in trim stacking sugar bags, and swimming or surfing in their spare time.in Dungloe with the Muellers, Meggie sweated her way through The Wet, as the monsoon season was called. The Dry lasted from March to November and in this part of the continent wasn’t exactly dry, but compared to The Wet it was heavenly. During The Wet the skies just opened and vomited water, not all day but in fits and starts; in between deluges the land steamed, great clouds of white vapor rising from the cane, the soil, the jungle, the mountains.as time went on Meggie longed for home more and more. North Queensland, she knew now, could never become home to her. For one thing, the climate didn’t suit her, perhaps because she had spent most of her life in dryness. And she hated the loneliness, the unfriendliness, the feeling of remorseless lethargy. She hated the prolific insect and reptile life which made each night an ordeal of giant toads, tarantulas, cockroaches, rats; nothing seemed to keep them out of the house, and she was terrified of them. They were so huge, so aggressive, so hungry. Most of all she hated the dunny, which was not only the local patois for toilet but the diminutive for Dungloe, much to the delight of the local populace, who punned on it perpetually. But a Dunny dunny left one’s stomach churning in revolt, for in this seething climate holes in the ground were out of the question because of typhoid and other enteric fevers. Instead of being a hole in the ground, a Dunny dunny was a tarred tin can which stank, and as it filled came alive with noisome maggots and worms. Once a week the can was removed and replaced with an empty one, but once a week wasn’t soon enough.’s whole spirit rebelled against the casual local acceptance of such things as normal; a lifetime in North Queensland couldn’t reconcile her to them. Yet dismally she reflected that it probably would be a whole lifetime, or at least until Luke was too old to cut the sugar. Much as she longed for and dreamed of Drogheda, she was far too proud to admit to her family that her husband neglected her; sooner than admit that, she’d take the lifetime sentence, she told herself fiercely.went by, then a year, and time crept toward the second year’s end. Only the constant kindness of the Muellers kept Meggie in residence at Himmelhoch, trying to resolve her dilemma. Had she written to ask Bob for the fare home he would have sent it by return telegram, but poor Meggie couldn’t face telling her family that Luke kept her without a penny in her purse. The day she did tell them was the day she would leave Luke, never to go back to him, and she hadn’t made up her mind yet to take such a step. Everything in her up-bringing conspired to prevent her leaving Luke: the sacredness of her marriage vows, the hope she might have a baby one day, the position Luke occupied as husband and master of her destiny. Then there were the things which sprang from her own nature: that stubborn, stiff-necked pride, and the niggling conviction that the situation was as much her fault as Luke’s. If there wasn’t something wrong with her, Luke might have behaved far differently.had seen him six times in the eighteen months of her exile, and often thought, quite unaware such a thing as homosexuality existed, that by rights Luke should have married Arne, because he certainly lived with Arne and much preferred his company. They had gone into full partnership and drifted up and down the thousand-mile coast following the sugar harvest, living, it seemed, only to work. When Luke did come to see her he didn’t attempt any kind of intimacy, just sat around for an hour or two yarning to Luddie and Anne, took his wife for a walk, gave her a friendly kiss, and was off again.three of them, Luddie, Anne and Meggie, spent all their spare time reading. Himmelhoch had a library far larger than Drogheda’s few shelves, more erudite and more salacious by far, and Meggie learned a great deal while she read.Sunday in June of 1936 Luke and Arne turned up together, very pleased with themselves. They had come, they said, to give Meggie a real treat, for they were taking her to a ceilidh.the general tendency of ethnic groups in Australia to scatter and become purely Australian, the various nationalities in the North Queensland peninsula tended to preserve their traditions fiercely: the Chinese, the Italians, the Germans and the Scots-Irish, these four groups making up the bulk of the population. And when the Scots threw a ceilidh every Scot for miles attended.Meggie’s astonishment, Luke and Arne were wearing kilts, looking, she thought when she got her breath back, absolutely magnificent. Nothing is more masculine on a masculine man than  kilt, for it swings with a long clean stride in a flurry of pleats behind and stays perfectly still in front, the sporran like a loin guard, and below the mid-knee hem strong fine legs in diamond checkered hose, buckled shoes. It was far too hot to wear the plaid and the jacket; they had contented themselves with white shirts open halfway down their chests, sleeves rolled up above their elbows.
“What’s a ceilidh anyway?” she asked as they set off.
“It’s Gaelic for a gathering, a shindig.”
“Why on earth are you wearing kilts?”
“We won’t be let in unless we are, and we’re well known at all the ceilidhs between Bris and Cairns.”
“Are you now? I imagine you must indeed go to quite a few, otherwise I can’t see Luke outlaying money for a kilt. Isn’t that so, Arne?”
“A man’s got to have some relaxation,” said Luke, a little defensively.ceilidh was being held in a barnlike shack falling to rack and ruin down in the midst of the mangrove swamps festering about the mouth of the Dungloe River. Oh, what a country this was for smells! Meggie thought in despair, her nose twitching to yet another indescribably disgusting aroma. Molasses, mildew, dunnies, and now mangroves. All the rotting effluvia of the seashore rolled into one smell.enough, every man arriving at the shed wore a kilt; as they went in and she looked around, Meggie understood how drab a peahen must feel when dazzled by the vivid gorgeousness of her mate. The women were overshadowed into near nonexistence, an impression which the later stages of the evening only sharpened.pipers in the complex, light-blue-based Anderson tartan were standing on a rickety dais at one end of the hall, piping a cheerful reel in perfect synchrony, sandy hair on end, sweat running down ruddy faces.few couples were dancing, but most of the noisy activity seemed to be centered around a group of men who were passing out glasses of what was surely Scotch whiskey. Meggie found herself thrust into a corner with several other women, and was content to stay there watching, fascinated. Not one woman wore a clan tartan, for indeed no Scotswoman wears the kilt, only the plaid, and it was too hot to drape a great heavy piece of material around the shoulders. So the women wore their dowdy North Queensland cotton dresses; which stuttered into limp silence beside the men’s kilts. There was the blazing red and white of Clan Menzies, the cheery black and yellow of Clan MacLeod of Lewis, the windowpane blue and red checks of Clan Skene, the vivid complexity of Clan Ogilvy, the lovely red, grey and black of Clan MacPherson. Luke in Clan MacNeil, Arne in the Sassenach’s Jacobean tartan. Beautiful!and Arne were obviously well known and well liked. How often did they come without her, then? And what had possessed them to bring her tonight? She sighed, leaned against the wall. The other women were eyeing her curiously, especially the rings on her wedding finger; Luke and Arne were the objects of much feminine admiration, herself the object of much feminine envy. I wonder what they’d say if I told them the big dark one, who is my husband, has seen me precisely twice in the last eight months, and never sees me with the idea of getting into a bed? Look at the pair of them, the conceited Highland fops! And neither of them Scottish at all, just playacting because they know they look sensational in kilts and they like to be the center of attention. You magnificent pair of frauds! You’re too much in love with yourselves to want or need love from anyone else.midnight the women were relegated to standing around the walls; the pipers skirled into “Caber Feidh” and the serious dancing began. For the rest of her life, whenever she heard the sound of a piper Meggie was back in that shed. Even the swirl of a kilt could do it; there was that dreamlike merging of sound and sight, of life and brilliant vitality, which means a memory so piercing, so spellbinding, that it will never be lost.went the crossed swords on the floor; two men in Clan MacDonald of Sleat kilts raised their arms above their heads, hands flicked over like ballet dancers, and very gravely, as if at the end the swords would be plunged into their breasts, began to pick their delicate way through, between, among the blades.high shrill scream ripped above the airy wavering of the pipes, the tune became “All the Blue Bonnets over the Border,” the sabers were scooped up, and every man in the room swung into the dance, arms linking and dissolving, kilts flaring. Reels, strathspeys, flings; they danced them all, feet on the board floor sending echoes among the rafters, buckles on shoes flashing, and every time the pattern changed someone would throw back his head, emit that shrill, ululating whoop, set off trains of cries from other exuberant throats. While the women watched, forgotten.was close to four in the morning when the ceilidh broke up; outside was not the astringent crispness of Blair Atholl or Skye but the torpor of a tropical night, a great heavy moon dragging itself along the spangled wastes of the heavens, and over it all the stinking miasma of mangroves. Yet as Arne drove them off in the wheezing old Ford, the last thing Meggie heard was the drifting dwindling lament “Flowers o’ the Forest,” bidding the revelers home. Home. Where was home? 2014-07-19 18:44
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