Patrick White at Adaminaby
Patrick White is gone to work on Bolaro. His feet are smelly from his labours. White’s mother had the maid pack young Paddy off with several new pairs of socks upon his leaving home, but he cannot see his way clear to changing the pair he happens to be wearing from time to time nearly so as often as would be decent, so his feet are always smelly in his store-bought boots. That is to say, Patrick White’s socks are smelly. His feet are, ordinarily, no smellier than might be expected of a well-bred young man that has had his schooling abroad and has long since discovered life’s crowning pleasures cloistered in the theatre and a verse. But the bloated, frostbitten carcass of the ewe that is stranded in the topmost boughs of the snowgum at the foot of which young Patrick White now stands is decidedly, unapologetically smelly.
Paddy White is not the worst jackaroo Old George has had in his charge. For one thing, the young White is a capable horseman–though he regards quarterhorse and pony alike with the detachment of a youth that has been too long with racehorses and so is able to weigh an animal’s value in flesh-poundage while disdaining yet the heart beneath. Besides which, Paddy is just one of the dozen young society men the expansive Master Osborne has put to work on Bolaro in recent years, intending–out of the goodness of his heart–to afford them a parentally-endorsed opportunity to tot up a good long column of entries in the servant side of the ledger.
– The snow’ll bank up snug gainst the trunk’n keep on pilin up there til the ole tree’s buried, Old George says.
– So, the ewe… Patrick White begins–purposeful in his search for a purposeless question; taking his time about the phrasing so as to impart in its delivery all the preparatory observations he can lay his mind to; anxious to make good on this rare chance of an exchange with the sun-scarred overseer and to draw the discussion out and on for as long as possible and to avoid, thereby, taking up the yoke, so to speak, until after he has had a mug of tea from his flask and expelled the trapped wind of the night’s sleep and contemplated the bitch-tussock of the station’s montane meadow being lately exposed from beneath the fast-melting snow by gay sun-showers and the nascent season’s more modestly bitter winds –
– …the ewe–being drawn to what little greenery it remains for her to see when the whole world is blanketed in perishing whiteness–the ewe, so impoverished of her senses, is drawn inexorably toward those leaf-tips that poke through the drift at the terminal tips of the tree-branches buried beneath, finds herself on an uncertain footing–the branches beneath her being apt to interrupt and disperse the dense bed of snow that might otherwise be produced of the fall bearing down as a single, solid mass–and is lured to her death: pulled down into an icy sinkhole within the bowels of which she freezes rapidly to death–before the fatal snowdrift melts out from underneath her?
Old George grasps the sense and shape of the question, but will not be drawn in by its thrust. He has known plenty of other city-raised sons set out on a rural Bildungsroman dreamed up by their well-meaning parents (and plenty worse than Paddy White)–and so feigns ignorance.
– The ol girl’ll freeze ter death on the snow, an there we are, he offers with affected finality, though adds –
– Springtime means dead ewes in the treetops.
Patrick White likes this last. He turns the phrase over on his tongue – just barely parting his teeth–and stoops to retrieve a calico rucksack from the muddy earth at his feet. There are implacable burrs in his filthy socks–the first he has seen in months. Patrick White will take a draught of tea. To begin the day’s work now would only make certain his arrival at dinnertime a red-faced, stiff-limbed wraith clad in an oily slick of sweat. One could stand to cut such a figure at tea on most days of the working week, but not today–today the youngest of the Aitchison men is expected to call. Patrick White has reserved his best-preserved pair of clean woolen socks for just such a day.
– And so they are as dead Indian braves laid out atop a platform in sky burial–food for the hawks, he says.
– An the bleedin crows, an all, George replies, savagely.
Patrick White draws his battered tin flask from out the rucksack and unscrews the lid with a staccato cough and as much clattering as he can manage, hoping to dull the sound of a voluminous fart. His griping guts find the lessons of Sally’s kitchen hard in the learning, and he farts hot, swede-scented farts at all hours of the day and night. In the jackaroos’ quarters, to let slip a greasy fart is hardly a hanging offence–in any event, Patrick White is able there to cast the blame upon poor brindle Soames, with his lop-sided face all wet with spittle. But there is no dog here at which to point the finger, and while Old George is coarse enough–being a man who has carved his very life from out the frost-hollows of the Monaro–he is not so coarse as the wage labourer with a cleft palate for whom a fart muffled by bunk or blanket is a most welcome diversion.
– There is snow enough on the ground yet, Patrick White says–speaking rapidly now, and too loudly–as he realises with inner horror that nothing so slight as his own voice might mask the high-pitched pree-ee-ee-pffffft of a morning fart surrendered under duress.
– Not so much as ter keep us from fixin a few fences, George replies.
Patrick White does not hear him because he has soiled himself a little.