South of Darkness by John Marsden – Extract

9781743531563Having been asked by the Revd Mr Johnson to jot down a few notes about my upbringing and the manner of my arrival in the colony, I will attempt to do so, but I should say at the outset that I have little of interest to relate. I have not contributed much of worth to the world, as will no doubt become obvious in the pages that follow, and indeed I sometimes wonder that I even survived the trials and tribulations of my earliest years.

I will begin, however, by relating my present situation. I do so in order to get my thoughts assembled in some way, for I confess I am loath to go back over some of the more painful memories that have accompanied me to this place. Verily, it seems easier to write about what I see outside my window than what I see when I look to the interior, at the dark rooms of the past.

Around me, then, are a few cleared acres, with trunks of trees piled here and there. These were fired the day before yesterday and are still smouldering. The smoke steals into everything, making my eyes water and my cough even worse. If a man wakes in the middle of the night he sees the red glows in all directions, and though he can be thankful for the warmth, he still shivers at the thought of that infernal flame to which a great number of the men and women who inhabit this place may expect to be consigned when the awful knell sounds.

Beyond the beginnings of Mr Cowper’s farm lies the endless grey-green forest of this land. My fellow convicts, not to mention the soldiers, marines, emancipates and free men, were and still are for the most part uninterested in what they see as its strangeness and monotony. When I first arrived I regarded it with much the same distaste. Yet gradually I have fallen under its spell. To wander through it is to be struck by both its immensity and at the same time the delicate details that I fear generally escape the notice of my compatriots. As a boy and young man I believe I lacked the capacity to notice its finer features, for attention to detail comes only with age. As time passed, however, I did have quite singular opportunities to get to know it at close quarters, and perhaps those early experiences laid the foundations for my current appreciation of its qualities.

I feel I have at least been able to venture some small way into its mysteries.

At first one is struck by the absolute peculiarity of the native creatures. I remember vividly the first time I surprised kangaroos at rest. They were in the middle of a stand of trees, in a clearing with sufficient grass for them to rest comfortably. The sun was at its height. The first they knew of my presence was when I emerged from a dense stretch of eucalyptus at the edge of the glade they had adopted as their home. They were as startled as I was. In a rather ungainly way they scrambled to their feet and bounded away, scattering in a variety of directions. Kangaroos are one of the few wild creatures who do not move quietly, when in flight at least. They pound the ground with the heavy spring of their rear legs, so I could hear them for a considerable time.

In spring, the little prickly beasts known as echidnas are everywhere, sometimes in a line of three or four. I believe they can be compared to the hedgehogs of home, but I have seen these latter only in books. The koala bears are rather less common, and are seldom seen on the ground. Men say they never need water, but I have observed them several times lapping from pools. In their trees, where they spend the greater part of their lives, they are slow and ponderous, moving from branch to branch with the solemnity of a judge at the Old Bailey. Unlike those awful dispensers of justice, however, the koalas, with their babies clinging to their backs, make a charming spectacle.

It must not be thought that it is just the creatures of this country which give the forest its beauty. Sprinkled through it, in the spring particularly, are brightly coloured flowers which would be lauded were they to grow in the woods and heathlands of England. Here they are disregarded, because they come into bloom for brief intervals only, and because they are not easily evident in the endless expanse of trees and grasses. Some are indeed among the tiniest and most delicate of God’s creations, but are they to be crushed under the careless boot of a soldier or convict for that reason alone? They too have their place. To be insignificant in Man’s eyes says nothing of the way we are viewed by the Supreme Being who, despite the vicissitudes of my life, I still believe made me, and everything else, and did so for a reason.

In my time I have been somewhat insignificant, and exactly why God took the trouble to create me has been difficult to imagine, though I can hardly be compared to a flower. A rank weed perhaps. Yet I too have felt the crushing boot of my uncaring fellows. Perhaps it is time, though, that I complied with Revd Mr Johnson’s charge, to describe a little of my tale.

My name, then, is Barnaby Fletch. To the best of my knowledge I have no middle name and cannot say of whom I am the son, or of whom my father’s father’s father was the son. I can hardly give the story of my birth let alone my pedigree, unlike the gentlefolk who are able to say, ‘My great-great-grandfather fought with . . . at . . .’ or ‘On my mother’s side I am descended from the Duke of . . .’ Would that I could. Alas, my origins are shrouded in mystery, and the only mother and father I can summon are wraiths. On occasions I have invoked these phantoms in my mind, attempting to give myself succour in times of loneliness or sorrow, but the images I have conjured, which I am convinced are manifestations of the imagination alone, have provided little in the way of comfort, and I can only pray that all will be revealed when I am summoned to the Judgement Seat, for it is not likely to happen during my mortal existence.

My earliest memory is of being pulled aside in a crowded and narrow street that I surmise must have been in London, for I have no memory of ever going outside that town until I was thirteen years old. I believe I was about to be run over by a grand carriage, perhaps in the manner in which the aristocrats of France cared not whom they crushed under their wheels in the days before the recent revolution in that country. It may have been merely a cab; I cannot say at this distance. I recollect huge wheels and the great noise they made on the cobblestones, and my arm being nearly wrenched out of its socket and a voice bellowing at me in anger at my carelessness. Some shiny bauble had attracted me and I think I had trotted out into the path of the carriage to collect it. I know not what manner of thing it was, for the arm pulled me head over heels, and by the time I regained my balance, the shiny object was gone.

Perhaps it was just a beam of sunlight reflecting from a puddle. I had not cried at the violent pulling on my arm, nor at my near escape from death, nor at being turned upside-down on the roadway, but I cried at the loss of the bright hope represented by the gleam on the cobblestones. Perhaps the man who snatched me clear and then roared at me was my father. There are wisps of memory of a big bearded man who shouted a lot, and a woman who held me tight at certain times and pushed me away at others. These are the wraiths to which I can give no earthly form. Likely they have now gone to their rest and I can only pray that they know God’s love and forgiveness in their eternal home.

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