KYD‘s First Book Club pick for October is Rachel Leary’s Bridget Crack (Allen & Unwin). Set in Van Diemen’s Land in 1826, the novel is a gripping and moving story of a woman’s struggle for survival in a beautiful and brutal landscape, a unique and deeply accomplished novel by a rare talent. The following extract is from Chapter 1.
Bridget stood on the boggy patch of ground looking up at the road. She yanked the spade out of the ground, shoved it in again and with a grunt brought up another chunk of waterlogged soil. The blister on her middle finger burst and she swore, put it up to her mouth. The sun had reached the field above and just below the road, evaporated the fog and melted the frost. The patch of dirt where she worked was still cold, the hill on the other side of the creek shading it. Below her, fog clung to the creek and the low land around it, rays of morning sunlight filtering into it, the grass under the fog coated in frost. Despite the digging her hands and cheeks were pink with cold. She looked behind her at the saddle between the two hills where Pigot and Chambers had gone that morning. Nothing. No sound but the rush of the creek and the distant bleating of sheep.
She shoved the spade into the ground, strode up the slope to the cottage, yanked open the door to the lean-to and then pushed the next door that jammed into the cottage’s dirt floor. Inside she felt on top of the cabinet for the pipe, then for the smooth leather of the tobacco purse. She leaned over the fire- place, held a stick in the embers.
Outside she sat on an upturned log, exhaled smoke into the brisk morning air, looked across the field where the trees had all been cleared, the rocky slope dotted with black stumps. Quiet. There was no one out here. The cottage sat at the end of a road that went nowhere. No one came to the place. There was nothing out here but sheep and crows and Charles Pigot and Grant bloody Chambers.
She sucked again, the smoke rough in her throat. When she had come out here a month ago, Pigot had said the missus was away, was sick and with relatives in Hobart Town, would be back soon. There’d been no sign of any missus. None was coming. There wasn’t even a missus. She knew that now. Pigot was a man who lied easily, no trace of deceit in his black eyes, so sure was he of his right to lie. A man who did not answer to anyone, or to any God. She knew – there was no missus, never had been one in this cottage, not a sign of a woman anywhere, no leftover mark.
There was no missus, never had been one in this cottage, not a sign of a woman anywhere.
Chambers, a convict servant like her, repulsed her. Lizard eyes, flesh rotten with some unnamed shame. He’d grabbed her once down by the creek, ‘Come on, what’s wrong with ya?’ He’d slipped on a rock and she’d got away from him and since then the wanting in his gaze had been lacquered with anger.
For the last two days he and Pigot had been away over the hill felling trees, her there on her own all day. Pigot said he wanted the ground dug and ready to plant. She said why didn’t Chambers dig it, she wasn’t digging, it wasn’t her job to dig. Pigot had paused where he was, about to put a log on the fire. Then he placed the log slowly, deliberately. He straightened, turned around to face her, fixed her with shiny coal-coloured eyes. ‘Your job, is what I tell you your job is.’
Bridget sat smoking while the fog thinned over the creek. She hacked a piece of fabric off the bottom of her dress, wrapped it around her hand and walked slowly back down the field.
A little while later she saw a figure coming down the hill. One of them coming back. Which one? Chambers. He was limping. She had noticed it as they left this morning. He went into Pigot’s place, came out with something in his fist, walked down towards the hut that sat close to the damp of the creek, didn’t look over at her as he passed by about twenty yards away. What was he doing back? It wasn’t lunchtime yet. She heard the hut door open and close and soon a stream of smoke came from the chimney.
He straightened…fixed her with shiny coal-coloured eyes. ‘Your job, is what I tell you your job is.’
In the cottage she put damper, butter and smoked meat on the table for Pigot, took hers outside the lean-to and ate there. When she heard the dog bark signalling Pigot’s arrival, she walked off back down to the mud patch.
After he had gone again, he and the dog disappearing up the track and over the rise on the top side of the road, she went up to the cottage, got the bucket and took it down to the creek, drawing water from further down rather than her usual spot so that she didn’t have to go too close to Chambers’ hut while he was there.
Pigot came in again at dusk, hung his coat on the back of the door and sat down at the table. She put a bowl of hot soup and a spoon down in front of him, the butter and damper already there. He slurped a spoonful. ‘Take one to Chambers.’
‘What?’ She had long ago dispensed with calling him sir. Chambers never did and Pigot didn’t seem to want it. He was no gentleman, of that she was pretty sure.
Pigot slurped again, his face close over the bowl, didn’t answer.
She was confused. Chambers had his own rations, was given them every week and cooked for himself in his hut. She never went there.
She turned away from Pigot, spooned soup into a bowl, went to the door and out, down the track towards the creek.
Chambers was lying on a straw mattress in the corner, the fire casting a blanket of light over him. His right trouser leg was rolled up to the knee exposing a yellow boil on the shin, the skin around it red and tight. Bridget stood in the doorway holding the soup bowl. Chambers didn’t move. She went quickly over to him and put the soup down on the ground where she was still out of reach. She shut the door behind her and hurried back up to Pigot’s cottage and into her lean-to.
In the morning Pigot sent her down to the hut again, this time with oats. Inside the fire was nearly out. It was cold but Chambers’ face was shiny with sweat. The boil had broken overnight, pus and blood oozing from the middle of it. The leg was more swollen, the whole of it from the knee down fat and red. She put the oats down and he pointed at a bowl of water next to him. ‘Can you get more salt?’ She realised then that it must have been salt he’d had in his fist yesterday when he left Pigot’s cottage. She had to move closer to him to pick up the bowl. She grabbed it quickly.
Pigot was still sitting at the table eating.
‘He wants salt.’
He spooned oats into his mouth, kept his gaze on the table in front of him. ‘Then get it.’
She went to the sack in the corner, took a handful. She had just reached the door and pulled it open when Pigot spoke. ‘Touch my pipe again, I’ll drown you in that creek.’
She paused, wondering whether to deny it, then went out and down to the hut.
Pigot went up the slope and over the road by himself that morning, just him and the dog. After a while she heard the steady stroke of the axe begin. As she dug she looked over at Chambers’ hut.
By lunch, when Pigot told her again to take soup down there, the fever was on Chambers hard. As she went to leave he reached out, clamped his damp hand around her wrist. ‘Tell him I need a doctor.’
She pulled her arm off him. ‘He’s getting one,’ she lied, didn’t know why she’d said it.
Back up at the cottage she stood in the doorway. ‘He needs a doctor.’
Nothing from Pigot. He put a spoonful of soup in his mouth.
‘He’s going to die down there.’
Pigot raised his head. ‘And you care, do you?’
‘Can’t just let him die down there.’
Pigot looked back down at his bowl. ‘If he’s not better in the morning, I’ll get one.’
In the morning, he’ll be dead, she thought.
In the morning, he’ll be dead, she thought.
In the morning Chambers was alive but the leg was swollen and hot, the fever even worse. He was delirious, talking about a storm brewing, yelling at her to shut the door, shut the door. Then he was crying, blubbering that it wasn’t his fault, something – she didn’t know what, couldn’t understand what he was saying – wasn’t his fault. She sat on the stool next to his mattress. Pigot had not harnessed the bullock. He had gone over the hill with the dog just as he had the morning before. He was not going for the doctor.
She sat with Chambers most of the morning. She didn’t care what Pigot said or did. She couldn’t be over there digging while twenty yards away Chambers lay here like this. He hadn’t eaten last night and wouldn’t eat this morning. She managed to get some water into his mouth. He was restless, his eyes protruding and glassy. He thrashed around on the mattress for a long time and then fell into a deep sleep. She went out and up to Pigot’s cottage, stood outside it looking up the slope and over the road, could hear the faint stroke of the axe.
Down in the field she dug for a while and then went to check on Chambers. She stopped outside his door then opened it slowly. He was still, his eyes open. He was lying on his side, staring at the wall. She had known before she opened the door. Somehow had known.
Outside the cottage she stood looking up at the road, the rush of the creek behind her.
When Pigot came down for lunch she put the soup in front of him, waited to see if he was going to ask anything, enquire after Chambers, but he only spread butter on the damper and stuffed chunks of it into his mouth. He left again and in the afternoon she planted potatoes in the dug dirt.
When Pigot returned in the late afternoon he went down to the hut, came back up, went into the lean-to and came out with the spade, took it down towards the creek. Bridget could hear the rough sound of the spade going into the dirt. In the twilight she saw him drag the body out of the hut, saw him roll it, pushing it for the last part with his boot, into the hole. He picked up the spade, shovelled dirt into the grave.
Later, she lay awake feeling the presence of Pigot on the other side of the wall. She had not spoken to him that night and he had not said a word – ate his dinner as though nothing at all had happened. Eventually she got up, lifted the lean-to door so it would be quiet and not drag, and went outside. The moon, almost full, cast blue light across the field. The bullock was moving around in the yard beyond the end of the hut, the faint sound of the creek running – those the only sounds rippling the silence. The brightest of the stars spun dusky fingers of light at her. Can’t stay here, it said.
Have to get away from this place.
Bridget Crack is available now at Readings.