Companionship found in a new land

What is foreign becomes familiar with a meeting of different cultures.

Morning, Wednesday, 31st October, 1855:

The boat takes off as soon as they push away from the shore. The sail puffs with a sudden gust of wind and Kitty, up the front, pitches backwards onto Ellis, who puts her hand up to steady her. The girl laughs as she scrambles to her feet. Her skin is the colour of wet sand, Ellis thinks, impossibly young and smooth.

Kitty rocks the boat a little, side to side, as if trying to tip it over, her bare feet squeaking against the slippery wooden surface.

''Sit down, girl, before we all end up in the water,'' says Louisa. She shoves her unlit pipe between her teeth to free both hands, one on the rudder and the other pulling on the sail until the tilt of the boat is righted.

Kitty flings herself onto the seat, her bottom lip jutting.

''There, there,'' says Ellis. She turns to Louisa. ''Come now, she's only a child. She doesn't …''

''Old enough.''

Ellis knows what Louisa is thinking. Whitefellas, bad parents, all of them. Spoil their children rotten.

Louisa stares straight ahead while Kitty and Ellis exchange a look.

''Tell me all about the beach at Portland, Kitty,'' says Ellis. ''Did you collect any seashells?''

While the girl speaks, Ellis thinks, how is it that I find more pleasure in this small native child than I do in my own? Why am I less irritated? More entertained?

''Hush,'' says Louisa, ''no one cares for your prattle.'' And the girl falls silent.

The boat glides along, the only sound the gentle slapping of the water against the hull. As they round the promontory, the wind drops away and the sail collapses. They drift towards some reeds and the air grows hazy with warmth.

Ellis looks out beyond the edge of the lake to where some cows graze and away to the mountain range behind, hovering dark and blue in the distance. The morning sun is soft on her face, the air still crisp.

She narrows her eyes, just as he has taught her to do, so that all detail falls away and colour crystallises: pea-green grass and a lilac sky; the tops of the trees pale, and down below dark green, like cooked spinach.

She can see the shadow of the mountain and the fuzzier, grey line around the edge.

The umbra and penumbra. Such interesting words. Shadow and line.

Shadows are not black; they contain the hue of the object itself, she can hear him say.

In the other direction sits the house and garden. How will the artist depict them? Ellis thinks. They look very pretty from this distance, almost part of the landscape now, the dark grey stone and slate roof blending in to the basalt and granite soil of the mountain behind. Settled, like someone who has eased himself into a comfortable chair; permanent. From here one could not see all the building going on behind the house, the additions, if one could describe ten rooms and two storeys as such. Soon the little stone cottage would be entombed within the new house; swallowed up, as if it had never existed. To the left, the outbuildings and sheds and their very first hut, wattle and daub and now used by Woodley, the main overseer. One room with a tamped-down dirt floor and a chimney. Fancy bringing a new bride to a place like that. No wonder she had reacted the way she had. What had Alexander expected? Wind whistling through it and not even a proper wash house. Her gaze moves along until it comes to rest at the small graveyard east of the house. Two small tombstones surrounded by a grove of honeysuckle trees. A nursery for dead infants. She blinks and looks back at the house.

You would not recognise it as the same place any more. Every year, Alexander had added more polish to the dwelling, a verandah with a shingled hip roof, and on the northern side, a stone portico with Ionic columns. They softened the effect of the bluestone but still the house seemed more and more like somewhere in Scotland. He had removed almost all the native forests, ploughed up the tussock grass and yam daisy and strewed the plains with wheat and English grasses for pasture. Not that it was easy land to farm in spite of the rich dark soil. After the drought of the early years, parts of the land had sprung up wet with marshes that flowed into each other as fast as Scottish burns, but the water only brought other problems: foot rot and scab and catarrh; rust and bunt and blight. Now, nothing blocks the path of the wind, not even the drystone walls that crisscross the pastures, and frosts crack the earth as early as March.

Four times Alexander had added more acreage to their original holding so that the total now stood at 102,400 acres. He had built a large stable and shearing shed, a hut to house the men, a dipping yard, a store and a blacksmith's shop. A new underground dairy was the next thing, to keep the milk cool in the summer. He now employed over forty men: Woodley, the head overseer, as well as three working overseers, six boundary riders, fifteen shepherds, a saddler, a bullock driver, a ploughman, a groom, a gardener, an orchardist, five thistle cutters, four hut cooks and four native boys. Yet she could never find anyone during the day to do a simple chore for her.

Edited extract of The Longing by Candice Bruce, published by Random House. This book is one of 10 Victorian titles included in the State Library's Summer Read program. Visit a participating public library and recommend one of the books for your opportunity to win a prize.

This story Companionship found in a new land first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.