The Sooterkin

The Sooterkin

by Tom Gilling


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The action in Tom Gilling's wickedly funny, magical novel, The Sooterkin, revolves around the bizarre birth of a child who appears to be more seal than human. As the extraordinary news spreads through the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania) during the winter of 1821, mystified residents flock to investigate. The local reverend hypothesizes a virgin birth, but the town's resident science "expert" suspects that the pup may be akin to the mysterious sooterkin-a monstrous, mythical creature born to women in Holland. In spite of its unusual physiology, the child's mother and brother accept the family's newest member and protect it from the clutches of outsiders, who want to exploit the sooterkin baby for profit. In the tradition of The Secret of Roan Inish, The Sooterkin is the perfect summertime fairy tale.

Author Biography: Tom Gilling was born in England and has lived in Sydney, Australia, since 1983. His journalism has appeared in many newspapers and periodicals including Rolling Stone.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780141002019
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date: 07/31/2001
Edition description: REISSUE
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.16(w) x 7.72(h) x 0.62(d)

Read an Excerpt


PARDON THE stench. You have hardly turned a page and a blast of putrid air has pricked your nostrils. The smell of mud and smoke and sickness, of spoiled meat and mouldy straw and slops left to rot in the street. Had you come sooner, you would have smelt eucalyptus blossom and lavender and Kentish hops struggling up the trellis in the chaplain's garden.

    It is May 1812 and winter is almost here. The whales have come early and Hobart Town is rancid with blubber. The try-pots have been boiling for a week and won't be doused until the last whale has been barrelled. The wharves are slippery with spilt oil. There is blood in the streets and piles of guts washed up on the beach.

    And mud. Dark, stinking mud churned up by cartwheels and flung by horses' hooves until the walls and windows of every house are spattered with it.

    In short, there are better times to visit this island and you would be well advised to catch the next schooner to Sydney, if there is room on it. You will find the office in Macquarie Street, the blue-painted door near the bond store: James McCluskey, Ships' Agent. McCluskey is the gentleman in the armchair, white-haired with a lazy eye and whiskers clotted with bacon fat. That eye is the most energetic thing about him. The rest hardly stirs between breakfast and supper. But McCluskey will get you a berth, if there are berths to be got.

    In the meantime, a few drops of lavender water sprinkled on a handkerchief will make the air more bearable. Ellis in Argyle Street has bottles in the window which he may be persuaded tosell for half a crown.

* * *

ON THIS dull, windy afternoon a spidery figure in corduroy trousers and leather waistcoat is weaving his way up Argyle Street with a parcel of oysters under his arm. There is something verminous about him, a suggestion of infestation emphasised by his habit of stopping abruptly in the middle of the road and scratching his head.

    The man is William Dyer, forty-six years old, a thin-necked, sallow-cheeked veteran of the Peninsular Wars. Twice promoted corporal, twice reduced to the ranks. Served at Corunna, Talavera, Busaco, Badajoz, Albuera. Wounded five times, viz Corunna, Talavera, Busaco, Badajoz, Albuera. William Dyer never entered a battle without being stretchered off it. He was twice taken with typhoid fever, three times with the pox. Dishonourably discharged Cadiz, Spain. Pay owing: ninepence. Arrived Hobart Town, Van Diemen's Land, November 1811. Married Sarah Moody, twenty-four, convict, fair complexion, blue eyes, three months pregnant. There is not much of William Dyer that has not been whittled away by typhoid and thin rations. The flesh that was on him once has fallen off, leaving a lean, sparrow-boned handsomeness that makes him look ten years younger than he is.

    Dyer's slovenly gait mimics the undulations of the road as it rises from the yellow cliff above Sullivan's Cove before lurching down to the rivulet and then resuming its climb towards the wooded hills overlooking the harbour.

    Of all the streets in Hobart Town, Argyle Street is the most rebellious. While other streets obey the judicious symmetry of Governor Macquarie's grid, Argyle flouts it with a maze of squalid alleys and gangways leading down to a wooded gorge much favoured by escaping convicts. Spurning the brick houses and public monuments of its neighbours, Argyle Street revels in its surly collection of weatherboard shacks and taverns and narrow-fronted shops fencing stolen goods.

    At the point where the road ends among a rabble of settlers' huts and rickety boarding houses, William Dyer pauses to hitch up his trousers. A work gang shuffles past on its way to the lumber yard: six men in coarse canary jackets and caps, stiff leather slippers, rusty chains sagging from their belts, staring at the parcel under his arm.

    A half-starved dog limps out to meet him. Dyer looks around, as if its appearance signals a more dangerous welcome lying just out of sight. He walks back a few yards to peer down an alley, then crosses the street, glances over his shoulder and clumsily reties the string holding his trousers up. Having satisfied himself that the dog's companions are elsewhere, he picks up a stone and hurls it, losing his balance and falling down in the mud at exactly the moment that Sarah Dyer gives birth to his son.

* * *

'WHAT'S THIS?' growls Dyer, as if someone has played a trick while his back was turned. He stares at the boy, curled up like a prawn on an oily sheepskin, pink and wrinkly, shit-smeared, eyes pinched against the candlelight. 'I thought it weren't due for a fortnight.' His breath reeks of beer and tobacco. A mudcake is stuck to his backside. 'God bless him, missus, but the boy's got a decent bit of gear on him.'

    The midwife has just got him tied off and is soaping her hands in a basin.

    Dyer pokes a tar-stained finger between the child's gums, then counts his toes and pinches his ribs and slaps his shrivelled bum. 'What's his name then?'

    'He hasn't got one,' says Sarah Dyer, sitting up in bed so she can keep watch on the pair of them. She is a quick-tempered woman with a small red mouth and too many teeth. Something about her lips suggests a pout that has fallen out of use. It was never her intention to shackle herself to an insipid creature like William Dyer, but there is only so much of a man's character that can be discerned while rutting in the dark against a ship's bulkhead.

    Dyer wipes the goo off his finger and peers into the boy's ears, which are already settling into a familiar spiral shape, like cabbage hearts, the spitting image of his own. 'William ain't a bad name,' he says.

    'Suit yourself,' says Sarah, lowering herself back on her pillow. She glances sideways at the midwife, whose face is fixed in a solemn grimace of disapproval. 'I've got nothing against William.'

    Dyer rubs his chin and says, 'Thomas is a good'n.' He leans over and picks a stray bit of sheep's wool out of the child's ear. 'A boy'd go a long way with Thomas behind him ... or Joshua.'

    'He only needs the one,' she says. 'Which is it to be?'

    Dyer pushes his clay pipe between his lips and sucks on the empty bowl. 'Ned,' he says. 'I never seen a boy go wrong with Ned.'

    'Ned it is then.'

    Dyer flips the boy over and starts tickling him with his pipe stem. As he draws curlicues on the child's belly, a blob of black tar rolls out and comes to rest in his navel. The midwife stops what she's doing and puffs up like a pigeon. If there was a broomstick in her hand, she would clout him with it.

    She frowns at the child and sets to work with soap and bacon fat and witch-hazel while William Dyer stands shamefaced in the corner nursing his oysters. But the blob refuses to move, and the midwife says it's stuck fast and will have to be burnt out with a candle or sucked out with a poultice or left where it is.

    'A bit of tar never did a boy any harm,' mumbles Dyer.

    'And what would you know about it?' snaps his wife.

    The midwife goes home and Sarah Dyer falls asleep and her husband beavers away with a saucer of sour milk and a sponge and some lavender water he found in a bottle by the road. But nothing will shift the blob and after an hour of rubbing and cursing he gives up and goes back to his oysters.

* * *

WE HAVE skipped ahead nine years to a grey wet winter of fog and squalls. The River Derwent has burst its banks and sheep are drowning from Jericho to Clarence Plains. Trading ships lie at anchor in Sullivan's Cove, creaking, taking on water above and below. Last week a squid was found swimming in the harbourmaster's basement.

    Lieutenant-Governor Davey, caught with his hands in the regimental pay chest, has been removed from his post and banished with a hundred head of cattle to his farm in Pitt Water. His replacement, Colonel Sorell, an honest fornicator, petitions London for more soldiers to keep the blacks at bay and guard his five thousand convicts. There is fever in the gaol. The causeway to Hunter's Island has been washed away and rebuilt and washed away again, so that condemned men must wade ashore to be hanged.

    Ned has grown into a dark-haired, sinewy lad dressed in his father's corduroy pants cut off at the knee, with a calico shirt and blood-red double-tied neckerchief. He can fillet a gentleman's pockets with a shaving razor and separate a widow from her silk handkerchief. He can tell a tin watch from a silver one, spot if a coin has been clipped and judge an ounce of tobacco by looking at it. Such talents are not to be despised in a boy who has the wit to put them to use. But they don't impress Mrs Fitzgerald, the schoolmistress.

    Mrs Fitzgerald is a bustling, wattle-throated woman who arrived in the colony seeking eligible bachelors but, finding none to her taste, assumed a vocation that made them unnecessary. The existence, now or in the past, of a Mr Fitzgerald is a question much speculated on by Hobart society, but never resolved.

    It is Mrs Fitzgerald's philosophy that children—and especially boys—must have education forced into them, as a French farmer forces grain down a goose's gullet. A boy, she says, who cannot acquaint himself with the contents of a newspaper or read his name on a summons is a boy who will never know which side of the world is up.

    Ned, having swallowed his lessons for the time it took to learn his letters, add ninepence halfpenny to half a crown and divide a pound of almonds by four, is convinced that the rest can be acquired by practice. Every morning he spends an hour wandering the streets, poring over signs and notices, mouthing words in shop windows, reading aloud from papers trodden into the mud.

    On the corner of Collins and Elizabeth streets, opposite the shop of Messrs Lloyd and Lonsdale, suppliers of gentlemen's and ladies' garments, English and India chintzes, calicoes, slops and flannel, stands a dead gum tree, rust-streaked from the nails hammered into it.

    The smooth grey trunk is used as a noticeboard for the display of government proclamations and private advertisements that would otherwise have to be paid for in the columns of the Hobart Town Gazette. Rewards are posted on it; inventories of stolen property; lost and found notices; threats of litigation and offers of land for quick sale; warnings against trespassers and appeals for the return of stray bullocks. Sometimes a copy of the Gazette is hung up in the hope of attracting subscribers.

    The tree is a signpost to what the colony is doing, what it's thinking, what it fears and what it admires, what it will pay and what it won't. It is here that Ned offers his services, at a halfpenny a time, to the convict servants and rheumy-eyed ticket-of-leave men who can't read for themselves.

    Amid the reports of animals lost, crops rotted and furniture floating out to sea, Ned fastens on a small item in the newspaper:

Born to Mr Galloway's grey Mare: a two-legged Colt. The pitiful Creature is in all Respects perfect save for the want of its Forelegs.

Ned is curious to see the creature, although he can't be sure from the newspaper's description whether the colt has two legs, four legs or no legs. If it were not for the floods, he would walk out to Galloway's farm and count them for himself.

    Meanwhile Sarah Dyer is bulging again, to the consternation of Ned (who will have to share a bed) and the surprise of his father (who cannot recall playing any part in it).

    The midwife who delivered Ned is long dead from cholera, buried in the graveyard behind the barracks with her daughter beside her. Now the maternity trade belongs to Mrs Jakes, the chaplain's housekeeper, who caters to all except the gentry. They would rather have Mr Trelawny because he comes to the door in a dog cart and carries a leather bag, while Mrs Jakes walks and carries a canvas sack.

    Trelawny is a bleeder by choice but will try his hand at anything when the grog is on him. Hobart Town is full of officers who owe their ruptures to Trelawny, and lunatics who owe him their trepannings. There is many a gentleman's son carrying Trelawny's purple thumbprints on his skull, and many a baby with his bones snapped by the forceps and his mother opened up like a purse, so Trelawny could reach in and pluck out his guinea before the father got home.

    Ned and his mother are swinging a bucket of mussels when Trelawny catches sight of them in Argyle Street. 'I'll consent to deliver the child for half a guinea,' he says, slowing his beast to a trot.

    'Not from me you won't,' says Sarah Dyer.

    'I shan't require the money at once,' says Trelawny; clip-clopping through the puddles.

    She hisses at Ned to take no notice.

    'I've seen a hundred mothers die that were too stubborn to let a doctor lay a hand on them.'

    'Mussels thruppence a bag.'

    'Don't imagine, ma'am, that I am in need of patients, or that the fee is of any material importance, or that I approach you with anything but the strongest feelings of disinterest.'

    'I never imagined nothing,' says Sarah.

    'I dare say, ma'am, in light of your circumstances'—he glances at the bucket—'I might be persuaded to reduce my fee to something more appropriate to your means. I may be induced to accept five shillings.'

    'Mrs Jakes will deliver me cheap enough.'

    'Indeed, ma'am,' says Trelawny, 'Mrs Jakes will deliver you to your maker if you are not careful. There is as much medicine in that woman as there is in my horse.'

    Sarah Dyer stops where she is and puts the bucket down and gives the animal such a whack on the rump that it bolts down the hill, with Trelawny tangled up in the reins and a pack of barking dogs strung out behind him like seagulls after a whaler.

    Ned glances at his mother's belly. 'Are you going to die, Mam?'

    'Does it look like it?' she says.

    The boy doesn't know. The pair of them stop to watch the pot-bellied figure of the Reverend Mr Kidney emerging blearily from Mr Birch's grand house in Macquarie Street. Conscious of being stared at, the chaplain pauses beside a rhododendron bush and buries his nose in a large white handkerchief, where he remains honking and snorting until Mr Goldfarb crosses the road to see if he is dying. Mr Kidney explains that he is not, but thanks him for his concern.

    A week before the baby is due, the midwife paddles through the gate. A stout, square-jawed woman with a cotton mob-cap screwed down tight on a bun of steel-grey hair, Mrs Jakes approaches her profession with the same serenity she would bring to stuffing a marrow, or wringing the neck of a chicken.

    She allows no room for sentimentality. Her detachment is such as to have persuaded some mothers, gratefully delivered of a healthy child, that Mrs Jakes once knew that joy and had it wrenched from her. Some have confided their thoughts to Mrs Jakes and been chastised for it, and told to mind their own business, which has only made their suspicions deeper.

    Mrs Jakes doesn't send Ned out of the house but kneels down and puts her hands on Sarah Dyer's belly. She asks when the baby is due, then reaches under the mother's skirts. Her eyebrows show a flicker of surprise.

    'I hope there is nothing unusual,' says Sarah. She smiles over her shoulder at Ned, whose gaze is fixed on a large mole growing on Mrs Jakes's chin, with hairs sprouting from it like the bristles on an artist's brush.

    The midwife removes her hand but doesn't answer. She asks if there is brandy in the house, should the occasion demand it. She declines the offer of a biscuit.

* * *

THE REVEREND Mr Kidney is a short round bowlegged man with black muttonchop whiskers and a florid face, like a pomegranate, into which he has poured a great quantity of brandy and lesser amounts of whisky and claret.

    Mr Kidney prefers to drink in company, but when there is none to be had he is willing—more than willing—to drink alone. He knows when to stop, but in an abstract, impersonal way, the way he knows the Latin name for a cucumber and the number of chapters in Ezekiel.

    He wears a straight-cut, single-breasted coat with an upright collar and sleeves which stop several inches short of his wrists—the same coat he wore when he came ashore on a blustery afternoon in 1804, except that the mother-of-pearl buttons have been replaced with bone and the seams have been let out more than once.

    Mr Kidney came as chaplain to the colony of Van Diemen's Land at a salary—less generous than he had been promised—of one hundred and eighty-two pounds and ten shillings per annum.

    In the inside pocket of his coat was a letter from his brother-in-law, a lawyer with an estate on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, thirty miles from Sydney. The letter, written in a hand he did not immediately recognise, extolled the benevolent climate, the green hills and fertile valleys, the rich dark soil and rivers teeming with fish and suggested, somewhat condescendingly that a humble clergyman (which Mr Kidney was not) might do worse than set himself up in the new colony of Van Diemen's Land, where it was said a fortune could be made with very little effort.

    The idea of a fortune made without effort (he was not an attentive reader) appealed to Mr Kidney, as did the distance that would suddenly open up between himself and 'a small but awkward circle of creditors. The sums concerned were modest, even trifling, but the demands for their repayment were becoming peremptory. He was careful not to broadcast his intention of leaving.

    He knew scarcely anything about Van Diemen's Land, and not much more about his brother-in-law, except that he owned land in New South Wales equivalent to a sizeable chunk of Oxfordshire and had paid next to nothing for it. What he did know was that the colony had a vacancy for a chaplain; and this fact, together with the contents of his brother-in-law's letter, was enough to make up his mind.

    Mr Kidney discovered too late that his brother-in-law had never been south of Botany Bay His knowledge of Van Diemen's Land came from a Scottish sealer who traded in Maori heads. The sealer had heard about it from the captain of a Boston whaler who had once ridden out a storm in Norfolk Bay. The Boston sea captain got it from the surgeon on a convict ship. The surgeon was a drunkard and made it up.

    Mr Kidney found himself in a shanty town, a jumble of tents and timber huts. Sawn logs and casks of nails and pickled herrings were stacked haphazardly by the shore. Convicts huddled under tarpaulins and the stench of smoke and boiling blubber drifted from the whalers' try-pots in Storm Bay.

    The hills beyond the settlement were strangled with thick forests. Sheep sank up to their necks in swamps. Rivers ran brown from the tannin in the button grass. The body of an absconder was found, half-eaten by wild animals, with sharpened sticks poking out of his eye sockets.

    For a year Mr Kidney lived in a tent. Convicts broke into his trunk and stole his clothes, his books, his china. He was plagued by boils and blowflies. He suffered delirious fevers and biblical constipations. But for Lord Spencer's brandy, it is doubtful he would have survived the winter.

    But he did survive, when others didn't, and he thanked God and Lord Spencer for preserving him. He supervised the construction of a stone cottage with a garden and a cellar and a small jetty where he could sit on warm days and fish for mackerel. As chaplain he refused to settle for fewer than six shuttered windows, of which three must be facing north. He didn't mind that the floors were not level and the doors were not square, so long as the roof didn't leak.

    Mr Kidney had convicts dig flowerbeds and drainage channels and build retaining walls. He acquired a broad-brimmed hat to protect himself from the sun, with a muslin gauze to keep off the flies. He strode about the garden ordering the removal of eucalypts and she-oaks and their replacement with marrows and cabbages and runner beans. He wrote to the Bishop of Calcutta asking for cuttings. The bishop sent him oranges, lemons, limes, neatly packed in sandalwood boxes, but already withered from the sea air. And a portable pulpit, made of teak, which he had not asked for and would have used for firewood had his housekeeper, Mrs Jakes, not found it useful for storing umbrellas.

    Later gifts (apples, gooseberries, quinces) were more successful, flourishing in the dark soil. Mr Kidney came to see their fecundity as a symbol of his own endeavour, ignoring the convict gardeners who, over the years, wore themselves out clearing rocks and shovelling shit on his beds. He sensed that God was pleased with him, and that he deserved it. He drank to his success and was disinclined to stop.

* * *

A Cucumber of large Size was grown this Season on a natural Bed in the Garden of the Rev. Mr Kidney at Cottage Green; its Length was 14 1/2 inches; Girth 12 ditto; Weight 4 lbs. We are pleased to congratulate Mr Kidney on its Production.

* * *

AT A minute before three on Saturday afternoon, the 14th of July, 1821, Sarah Dyer feels an impatient kick.

    It is a dismal, squally day with sleet scratching the rooftops and smoke curling over the town like a rat's tail. William Dyer, two-thirds drunk after his morning's exertions on the wharves, is trying to stitch up the holes in his lobster pot. Ned is making hooks out of sewing needles. Sarah is sitting down, legs apart, elbows on her knees, staring at a plate of bread and dripping.

    Suddenly she cries out, 'God save me! It's happening.' She tries to stand up. A gallon of murky water spills out of her. She groans and clutches her belly. William Dyer turns as pale as tripe.

    Before Ned can open the door, the midwife shuffles in, all pink forearms and broad hips and bunions, with a canvas sack as big as a goat slung over her shoulder. She pays no attention to the shrieking mother-to-be but fastens her gaze on the others as she pushes her grey hair under the flaps of her mob-cap and ties the strings firmly under her chin.

    Then it's hot water and towels and the midwife on her hands and knees and Sarah Dyer thrashing like a calf being dragged to the butcher's yard and Ned huddled under the table watching it all through the slits in his fingers.

    He hears cries, shouts, his mother squealing at the pain, William Dyer grinding his teeth on the stem of his pipe, the midwife up to her elbows in blood and pig's grease and God knows what else she has in her bag of tricks.

    Finally out it comes, a thing the size of a weasel, wet and slippery and covered in fur. The boy feels a hard lump drop down his throat into the pit of his stomach. His mouth opens and shuts and a warm wetness leaks out of him, soaking the legs of his trousers. For a moment he feels the breath sucked right out of his lungs.

    'A boy!' shouts Dyer, although the creature has got flippers and a black snout and resembles no boy that was ever born.

    'Mercy!' cries Sarah Dyer, falling back on her pillows.

    If Mrs Jakes has any opinion on the subject, she keeps it to herself. She picks the thing up and stares at it impassively, as if she were guessing the meat on a rabbit. The faintest shadow of a smile passes over her face, imperceptible to anyone except Sarah Dyer, who is watching her out of one eye. Mrs Jakes glances at Ned, still hiding under the table, with a puddle spreading under his feet, and says, 'It'll want a name, whatever it is.'

* * *

During the Day and Night of Thursday, and all day Friday, rough Weather with incessant Rain prevailed. The Torrent of Water which has flowed down the Rivulet has done considerable Harm. The Banks in some Places have been undermined and loosened, and some Houses have been damaged; and we lament to say that the new Brick Bridge in Murray-street, which was nearly completed, and would have been passable early next Week, was torn down.

* * *

THE REVEREND Mr Kidney stands under his black umbrella, staring at the rubble of Captain Nairn's brick bridge. Exactly a week ago the building superintendent, Mr Farquhar, stood on the dais, scratching his arse with a bevel square, and pronounced it the sturdiest bridge in the colony.

    The dais is still standing: a stout wooden frame with a carved balustrade and an ingenious set of wheels, built to the carpenter's own design, which give it the appearance of a medieval siege engine. But the bridge is in ruins, its humble arch swept away in the torrent, and with it the reputations of Mr Farquhar and Captain Nairn. And the chaplain, instead of leading the colony in prayer, has been laid up in bed with the flu, fending off Trelawny's leeches.

    It is Saturday afternoon and the settlement seems strangely deserted, as if its citizens had had enough of the mud and taken refuge in the hills. Sheepishly Mr Kidney climbs the steps of the dais. It's a relief to him that the bridge was destroyed before he blessed it, rather than after. He is grateful to the Lord for sparing him that little humiliation. His reputation at the moment, owing to some unkind rumours about his health, and his difficulty in honouring certain debts, is not at such a high point that it would easily shake off such a malicious demonstration of his impotence.

    Mr Kidney lays his fat pink hands on the wooden rail and stares disconsolately at the rubble. There are footprints all over the bank. Further off he notices the deep ruts of a bullock cart. And a wheelbarrow, turned upside-down to ensure it doesn't sail away in the deluge. And a set of pulley ropes still hanging from the dais on which the lieutenant-governor was to have sat while he, Thomas Kidney, led them in prayer. An illicit army, better organised than the one that built the bridge, and more enterprising, has been carting off the bricks. In a day or two there will be nothing left but the sandstone footings.

    The chaplain feels a sharp pain somewhere inside the damp cocoon of his coat; a pang not unconnected with an overlarge breakfast of devilled kidneys but sharpened by disappointment and a growing conviction that life has not honoured the promises it made to him. His hopes (surely not extravagant) were for a civilised, prosperous society respectful of God and the law. He did not expect literature and cathedrals. But even those modest dreams now seem as flimsy as Captain Nairn's brick bridge.

    He fishes in his coat for the silver flask which is all that keeps him from being sucked dry by Trelawny's leeches. If leeches ever acquired a taste for brandy, instead of dropping off half-full with their tails shaking, Mr Kidney would not be confident of surviving his next bout of flu. He swallows a mouthful, holds the flask to his chest, then swallows another. His left hand grips the rail, which sways under his weight. He notices several banisters are missing. He backs away until he is standing in the middle of the dais, a condemned man waiting to fall through a trap door—into what?

    Glancing behind him at a line of scraggy poplars planted beside the mill race, the chaplain sees a dark stooping figure scratching, like a chicken, among the undergrowth. The black shovel hat conceals the bald speckled head of James Sculley, a short wiry widower of sixty-four winters who arrived in the colony in 1813 and lives on an income of five hundred pounds sterling per annum, paid quarterly by a firm of solicitors in Southampton.

    When not rummaging under bushes, Mr Sculley can often be seen skulking in the woods or prowling along the shore. He collects and catalogues unusual specimens, draws meticulous sketches of birds, reptiles and mammals that have expired in his gas jar, then dissects them and reassembles their skeletons (discarding the pieces that won't fit) on copper wire. Such habits, in the chaplain's eyes, constitute evidence of a macabre and unhealthy enthusiasm for science.

    The beach below Battery Point is Mr Sculley's favourite hunting-ground, a great sieve that catches every kind of flotsam: the bodies of stranded dolphins and drowned sailors; planks of English oak, shards of porcelain and rough egg-shaped cinders skimmed off whalers' try-pots; jellyfish and broken bottles and the carcass of a mule that trotted into the sea and swam out until it was exhausted and was brought back by the tide, its teeth picked clean by sea lice and crabs scuttling in its ears.

    According to the latest rumours, he is now immersed in the science of physiognomy, the divining of a person's character by the shape of their features, and is preparing a paper on the subject for the inaugural meeting of the Van Diemen's Land Scientific Society.

    The chaplain watches as Mr Sculley unearths something from among the dead leaves and deposits it furtively in the pocket of his black frockcoat. He is tempted to call out, merely for the sake of letting him know that he is being observed. But as this might suggest some curiosity on his part he decides against it and reverses down the steps.

    When Mr Kidney reaches the bottom he is startled to find a white-haired old man sheltering under the dais. Beside him is a small handcart stacked with bricks. The man is sitting on a large timber block, with his back to him, smoking a pipe.

    Taking note of his age and probable infirmity, the chaplain decides to confront him, to berate him for stealing the government's bricks. But the man hardly appears capable of filling the cart, let alone absconding with it. What looks like his left arm, hanging limply by his side, is on closer inspection an empty sleeve.

    Ahurrgh. Mr Kidney clears his throat.

    The old man ignores him and carries on puffing his pipe.

    'You, sir.'

    The man raises one cheek and farts boisterously.

    'I am addressing you, sir.'

    He gazes carelessly behind him and suddenly sees the chaplain there, less than an arm's length away. 'Beg pardon, sir, I never heard yur honour.' He hastily stuffs the pipe in his pocket. 'I'm mostly deaf, sir ... too much wax in the ears ... I have to see the words comin' out, sir, else I can't make sense of 'em.'

    Mr Kidney gives the old man a look which says he does not believe him but is prepared (he hoists his black umbrella) to give him the benefit of the doubt. He looks again at the handcart. 'You intend to steal these bricks?'

    'Steal 'em? No, sir, not a bit of it.' The invalid holds up his empty sleeve. 'I'm keepin' an eye on 'em, sir.' He nods gravely. 'Makin' sure no-one runs off with 'em.'

    The chaplain is momentarily nonplussed. A pathetic gratitude surges through him. His umbrella trembles with the discovery that common English honesty has not been entirely washed away in the deluge. 'For Mr Farquhar?'

    'Farker, sir?'

    'The building superintendent.'

    The old man shakes his head. 'For Mrs Sweetwater, sir.'

    Mr Kidney blinks. He gulps. A look comes over him that suggests the onset of sudden paralysis. 'Mrs Sweetwater?'


    'You mentioned Mrs Sweetwater.'

    The man pushes his index finger into his ear with every intention, it seems, of locating the obstruction and pushing it out the other side. 'Sweetwater, sir. 'Er of the 'orticultural society. She wants 'em for 'er greenhouse. Give me thruppence to keep 'em safe.'

    Mr Kidney stares at the bricks, as though expecting them to rise up from the handcart and form themselves into some angular likeness of the lady whose friendship he once enjoyed, but whose attentions he has lately felt compelled to curb. He never ventured far enough into Mrs Sweetwater's feelings to discover the precise nature of her affections, nor far enough into his own to ascertain whether or how much they might be reciprocated. Mrs Jakes did not hide her disapproval and the chaplain, unwilling to question her motives, allowed himself to be swayed. The thought that Mrs Sweetwater might now be implicated in some activity involving bricks is something Mr Kidney cannot bring himself to contemplate. He looks at the man, who is still attempting to dislodge something from his ear, and effects a muddled escape under the cover of his umbrella.


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The Sooterkin 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i love it,even the title says it all,brilliant,courage,heart,excellent,all of the above!