English Passengers (Matthew Kneale)

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Instead of getting meat cooking on the fire, which was my great desire, I got a war. I never saw one before, no, but I heard stories from Tartoyen, while some things you do understand even without knowing. This was no battle yet, but nearly, with mine on one side and Roingin on other. That was a mystery to confound, yes, as Roingin never could be here, in the world, but must stay in theirs, as everybody knew. Also they weren't enough. Roingin were famous for being many but now they were fewer than mine. Still I could see they were strong, as they had more spears. Tartoyen, Gonar and others of mine just had a few--some didn't have even one--while Roingin had two or three each. That was some grievous worry, yes, and I did ponder how mine could be so piss-poor foolish.

"You are cowards," sang Roingin, to make my ones fearful, "and we will kill you very soon."

"You are liars and cheats," mine sang back, "and today you will die."

This war was a slow thing, I did observe, and shaking spears and singing insults went on and on with no fighting, so I went round through the bushes to where Grandmother and other women of my ones were standing. Grandmother was rejoicing to see me, though she was cross too. Grandmother never could just be pleased.

"Peevay, where've you been?" she asked. "We looked everywhere for you."

That was pleasing. So they were sorry, I did divine. I asked her how this war happened, and she said it started the morning before, when they met Roingin just walking through the forest of the world--our world--as if it was their place and not ours at all. That was a fighting thing, of course, as it is a strongest law that everybody must stay in their place unless they are allowed.

"There nearly was a war then," said Grandmother, telling how they all got ready, spears pointing and so, but then Roingin asked to speak their story. Gonar said they must not, but Tartoyen never did love fighting much, so he did permit them. Roingin story was too woeful. Ghosts came to their land, they told, plenty of them, and with ghost animals too, that were small and stupid and coloured like snow. First these ghosts were friendly, but then they tried to steal Roingin women and fighting happened, just small. One day when Roingin were looking for seal to hunt, ghosts came suddenly with sticks with thunder noise, and killed everyone they could, half all Roingin, children and everyone, and threw them into the sea. Later Roingin killed some back, but now ghosts were too many, always more, and when ghosts came to hunt them, Roingin decided they must leave their own land or all get killed. That was some ruination, truly, as to leave your world was just impossible, like being dead. Or so I supposed then.

Gonar wanted to kill Roingin anyway, despite their story, but Tartoyen felt sad for them. So he said ours would not kill them after all if they went away to their land now and never came back. They agreed, yes, and looked as if they went, but then when my ones woke this morning they found spears were gone, except just a few, and they saw Roingin watching through the trees, and shouting to Tartoyen he must let them stay in the world after all. Tartoyen couldn't do that of course. In fact he was more wrathful than everyone now, even than Gonar, as Roingins' grievous betraying made him look just foolishness. So everybody got ready to fight.

"Go back to your world," my ones were chanting. "Go back to your world or you all will die."

Each side had one fighter who wanted to make the war start. Ours was Gonar, while Roingin's was a short one with killing eyes. Each would run forward bravely towards enemies by and by, to wave his spear in the air and start new chanting, but then he'd look back at the rest of his to divine if they were following, and they never were. So it was, once and again, and I don't know if it ever could start, no, except for that accident. This was quite funny at first. Their warrior made another grievous provocation, waving his spear and so, and when his others never came, again he went away, walking backwards so he could watch my ones still. It was this going backwards that was his ruination, as he never saw that root stuck in the ground, but just fell. Some of mine laughed, I do recollect, and I laughed too, but not Gonar. He was gleeful at this great good fortune and ran forward fast, throwing his spear like wind, straight into Roingin warrior, making a little tiny cutting sound, chhhh. That was a good wound he got, I did divine, in his belly, enough for any wallaby, and though he shouted and tried to get up he could not.

Other Roingin were angry now, of course, and ran forward at Gonar, who got two spears both together, one in his neck. This was woeful and caused tender feelings deep inside my breast, yes, as it was lamentable to see him speared thus. Now everyone was shouting and holding spears as if they might throw them, or stooping down behind some tree, and suddenly I feared this might be some terrible war, everyone dead, though I never heard of any such before.

That was when the noise came. Truly, I never heard anything like it ever before. Louder than thunder it went, but very sudden, so I hardly knew it when it was already finished, and my ears were humming like wind in rocks, as if I got hit by some grievous blow. For one moment I wondered if this was the sound of being dead and if I was a ghost now, but then I observed others were still alive, and looking surprised just Iike me.

Then I saw the strangers. I think they were there before, yes, and I never noticed because of the fighting. They were standing away by the trees, not many--fewer even than Roingin--but looking strong. At the front was a woman with a face that was hard like stone, and in her hand she held a strange stick, that was long as a spear but thick like some waddy, with a thin end, all beautiful and shining. I could see smoke coming from it, though it wasn't burning, which was interesting, and made me think it was some magic thing. It was this woman who shouted at us.

"I won't let you fight each other. You must fight for me."

War was finished now, of course, stopped by everyone getting so surprised. Some ran away into trees, others just stood and stared. Then again it was some great mystery to confound. You see, this woman, who I never saw till now, spoke my ones' language.

Another puzzle to confound was that Grandmother was crying. Grandmother never cried.

"Who is she?" I asked.

Grandmother looked at me, and for the first time that I ever could recollect I observed there was no hating in her eyes. "Your mother."

So I finally saw her. She never was tall and beautiful like I thought, no, but was quite short with strong arms and legs, and quick eyes ready for some fight. Still I never minded. This was blissful and great good fortune. This was jubilation and tidings of joy. She had come to find me after all. I did not wait but ran, past mine, past Roingin, even past strange animals that I never saw before, that looked like kanunnah but small, and were called DOG ANIMALS, so I learned after. She never saw me till I was close. Then I grabbed her leg and shouted, "Mother."

Thus I got my worst grievous blow. Her eyes, which were gleeful before, turned cold like winter sea. Then she pushed me off, hard so my arms hurt, and turned away. Where she walked was interesting, yes. She went over to one boy, smaller than me, with little thin legs so he looked good for hitting, and d'you know she took the heinous little shit in her arms, as if he was some finest wondrous thing.

So it was I first saw Tayaleah, my never-guessed scut of a brother.

Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley
JULY 1857

After three full weeks caught in that sealed dock like rats in a box, why, even the river Blackwater seemed paradise itself. It's the Blackwater that leads up to Maldon town, and a well-named stream it is too, as if it's mud you're looking for then this is just the spot for you. All that eastern shore of your England is mudflat land, being nothing more than a great nothing of wind, yelling birds and too much sky. And mud, of course. But after that London every last dirty scran of it seemed loveliness itself.

As the wise man says, though, for every summer Sunday there's a winter wind to pay, and in this case the cost of our freedom was plain for all to see, strutting about the ship as if they owned it. Total charge: three passengers. Worse, Englishmen all of them. I can't say I was happy about the arrangement. I dare say I'd expected the Sincerity to see a few humiliations in her time--to be nibbled by barnacles, shat on by gulls and poked and prodded by customs men--but never, not once, did I think she'd be reduced to the shame of passengers.

Strange articles of passengers they were, too. Truly, you never did see such a clever and pestful trio as these, all disagreeing with themselves and taking their great clever brains for a little stroll about the deck. I dare say it was hardly a surprise they were odds, mind, seeing as their quest was to discover themselves the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden! As if it couldn't just be left in the Bible where it belonged. They weren't even looking to find it in any sensible spot, but on some rotten island at the very ends of the earth, called Van Diemen's Land, or Tasmania, as it couldn't make up its mind. This was a mad fool of a place, by the sounds Of it, all gaols and bluemen and worse, being nowhere any sensible fellow would venture near. It was there, and all the way back, too, that we were supposed to be carrying the three snots. A whole year of Englishmen. What a thought that was. It was bad enough just taking them along the coast to Maldon.

Worst was mealtimes, when I had to suffer them in the dining cabin with all their genteel little smirks and thank-yous and I wonder if you could pass the salt, Captain? The hardest to take was that vicar, Reverend Wilson, who was a thin, twittering sort of body, with a toothy smile that sat on his face all the time, like he never tired of himself. Truly, you never met a body so rich in his own importance, and watching him smirk and chew at his dinner it was hard not to think what a surprise he'd give to the fishes if he accidentally got dropped over the side. He was mean as could be, too. Truly, I don't think we could've found a more suspecting and penny-counting scrape if we'd trawled all London especially. It was all I could manage to coax enough charter money out of him to pay the customs fine, and even then he insisted on following me round the provision shops and such, peering over my shoulders as if I couldn't be trusted. Was that really enough casks of water for a journey to Australia? Enough biscuit? Enough chickens and sheep? In the end I had no choice but to stock up with half a shipload of food and water and creatures that we didn't want, quite as if we really did intend to take them to the ends of the earth. All the while we were loading up their own stores which were fancy as could be--champagne and best French brandy, choice meats and even silver cutlery to eat it all with--so we knew that, for all his moaning, this vicar was rich as the man that turned the rabbits all to gold.

Hardly a day seemed to go by without him calling at the sealed dock with some new fussing. He squawked so loud about sleeping quarters that I was sure he was after my own cabin. I was tempted to clear out Chalse Christian's carpentry workshop and fling them in there, but I supposed we'd never catch a penny out of them with that, so in the end it was the mates' cabins they had. I had Chalse Christian the carpenter rig up a top bunk in Brew's haunt, which would now be graced by Reverend Wilson and Dr. Potter. Second mate Kinvig's cabin, being nothing more than a cupboard with a porthole, I gave to the plants boy, Renshaw. Even then they were all three of them moaning and complaining, saying they wanted something more genteel, as if this was some passenger steamer. Nor were they the only ones playing huffy, as Brew and Kinvig were in a proper scowl at being slung into the fo'c'sle with the boys. Never you mind, I told them in Manx, it's only till we get to Maldon.

Finally there came that welcome morning when we were to be gone from the London dock. I'd have been happy slipping away nice and quiet, for sure, as in my book it's never clever to go catching the world's stares, but sadly that wasn't our Englishmen's way, and quite a crowd turned up to wave them good riddance. There were parsons, and newspapermen looking sharp. There was Jonah Childs, the moneybags, who had signed the charter agreement and given us our jink. A funny-looking body he was, tall as trees with a little tiny head so he looked like a bottle stuck on a pole, as he went round playing the big man, letting everyone have a little shake of his hand. Then there were the Reverend's children--a great stringy pack of them--and his wife and her sister too, who were a proper pair of wallopers, smiling away as if they couldn't wait for the old sleetch to be gone. Not that I blamed them any for that. Renshaw, the little plants boy, did hardly better, as his brother and father looked cheery as tombstones, while his mother was too far the other way, sobbing and fussing and pulling out a little present that she pretended she'd forgot, "for those cold nights in the mountains," though this turned out to be a dainty pair of gloves just right for supping tea with the Queen. It was the surgeon of the three, Potter, who did best with his goodbyes, catching himself half a hospital's worth of doctors, all making little speeches to one another at how grand it was he was going. They'd have a surprise when he came back inside a week.

Finally the ropes were let go, the boats hauled us out of the sealed port and a tug towed us down the river and away to the estuary. Grand as it felt to have the Sincerity back to a bit of ocean, it was rotten hard having those Englishmen aboard, all snooping and curious and noticing things. My fright was they might notice too much. The other little bother I had--and which I'd hardly troubled myself with till then, as there'd always been something worse to worry me--was how on earth we were going to unload that certain special cargo without catching their notice. Shifting casks of brandy by the dozen, along with sheaves of tobacco and some interesting pieces of French glass, will tend to cause a bit of fuss and noise, after all. It would have to be done somehow, though, as we couldn't give them back their charter money till we'd sold up.

"Perhaps we should just drop all three of them over the side," suggested Brew, smooth as milk. Sometimes I hardly knew if that one was joking.

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Excerpted from English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. Copyright © 2000 by Matthew Kneale. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.