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OUR BOOKS > CLOUD OF KNOWING

 
Novel
Written by Chester Eagle 1997
Designed by Vane Lindesay
DTP by Karen Wilson
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
Circa 78,000 words
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About the book:

Some years ago I saw the photo of a girl above the fireplace in a house I visited frequently. There were numerous family photos on the walls, but this one was new to me, and it captured my interest. I was told that the young woman, in the uniform of her school, had been an earlier owner of the house I stood in. I returned to the picture, attracted by the beauty and unconscious vulnerability of those who, having reached their first maturity, have an awareness of life lying before them. What will the future bring? I also sensed that a book could be based on the feeling the picture gave me. A few weeks later, I saw the photo a second time, and a decision made itself. Two days later I began to write the book.

The book’s other theme, the rising of cloud from a valley, was something I had heard about years before, when I lived in eastern Victoria, but had never seen; nor have I seen it now. I have taken the liberty of giving the cloud a purpose, that of clarifying the central character’s mind. In some way the cloud accompanies my girl in a photo, whom I call Claire, from childhood to old age; Claire dies, but the cloud will surely form again, the implication being that it is always available for those ready to listen.

The book is, then, an improvisation on a photo and a cloud. The Claire of my book leads one of the many lives the girl in the photo might have had. No effort was made to research the life actually led by the person in the photo.

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To read some extracts from the book click here:
Fire
Claire and her father
Desire
Thomas is dying
Men feel reduced
Cloud
Coming to an end
Burials
Can we just get on with whatever’s going to happen?

To read about the writing of this book click here.

Fire

In the early afternoon the wind swung around, and a fire that had been burning deep in the valley of the Donaldson swept to the top, scorching the Pattersons’ cattle, the smell of their bodies and the sound of their bellowing carried into the sky in a column of smoke. At the house, Thomas called everyone out. ‘The next hour, the next ten minutes perhaps, will decide everything!’ As he spoke, burning leaves fell on his smithy. Jacko rushed at it, beating the flames with bags tied to a pole. His horse reared, making him seem knightly. ‘It’s okay!’ he called, ‘but that’s the way they’re gonna come!’ He swung his horse in a circle till he was with his masters again, the first experience of battle gained. Claire was stationed on a tankstand, watching one side of their home’s roof; ladders had been placed to give them access with buckets. Her mother was on the other side, with a guarantee that the men would rush if she called. The column of smoke from the advancing fire reached above the horizon, then flattened, bent to the earth by the wind bringing destruction. The Pattersons watched the sky. ‘There’s another!’ Their voices lost identity in the collective defence, warning each other as they formed a thinking, collaborative unit. Water was hurled onto the roof of the workmen’s quarters. Warnings were given to watch the yards. Grass not caught by the burning off began to flicker with invisible flames beside the shed where their gear was stored. Water was hurled on it, beaters slapping this treacherous grass until it was reduced to blackened slop. Buckets were filled as soon as emptied. ‘Use the beaters! Try not to waste the water!’ Thomas yelled. ‘We don’t know how long this is going to last!’

It lasted less than half an hour, then, although their vigilance could not be relaxed, the falling debris reduced. Everything that could be burned between the Donaldson and their home had been burned, or was burning quietly, the lethal impetus, the hysteria at the forefront of the fire, having left them behind.

They started to clean up.

Their stretch of discovery and mourning began.

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Claire and her father

In the morning, she rode with her father. New Year brought nothing that was new, except time: time and opportunity. And that was where she was defeated, because the only opportunity was marriage. Her father commented, ‘You see more than the boys do. You see at least as much as I do, and I’ve got forty years more experience. Your mother doesn’t see a quarter of what you see, riding around.’ He thought. ‘Weather patterns, growth of grass, shelter for the cattle, you know it all. You read the country like a book. It’s rare. Lots of men never learn it. Norm and Jacko, for instance. They were the best of the men I had up here, but you could get’em lost if you wanted to. And they had no imagination when it came to the cattle. They couldn’t tell what the animals were going to do, because they couldn’t relate to what the animals were feeling. We lose control of our lives if we don’t control our imaginations, but then again, if we don’t use our imaginations, we don’t know where we are. You know?’ He wondered what his daughter would say.

She surprised him. ‘People used to say the earth was flat. Up here, it’s obvious that it isn’t, but eventually our race realised the earth was round. That was a step forward, I suppose, but not a very big one. What’s more important than what shape the earth is, is the answer to a question I’ve been carrying in my head for quite a while.’

Thomas Patterson felt he was going to be privileged by whatever his daughter said.

‘And here it is. It’s simple enough. What is the shape of a life? Or, if a life doesn’t have a shape, how can you say what it’s like? How well it’s going? What it needs to fix it? And, last question, what shape should a life take, and if your life isn’t in that shape, what can you do about it? I said that was the last question, but lots of others are crowding into my mind, so I’ll stop there. It’s enough to go on with, don’t you think?’

Thomas Patterson moved forward easily, on his horse Carnival, a black beside Binty’s grey. Men can speak more easily with women than with other men, he saw, because the rivalry of males causes suppression greater than men’s fear of women, something well behind him now. The soft grass tussocks were caressed by a quiet movement of air. ‘Hard to believe,’ he said, ‘that the big fires came through here.’ She nodded, remembering, then she said, ‘What’s your answer, father?’

If he was to retain the respect of his daughter he had, he felt, to find an answer worth her thinking about. He dug deeply, preparing, while their horses, Carnival and Binty, carried them to the edge of the plain, the vantage point, where they would peer down, looking for stray beasts. ‘I suppose I’ve got two answers,’ he said, ‘and I’m not sure how well they go together, but here’s what I think, if you want to hear.’

‘Tell me.’

‘The first answer, for me, would be about handing on, and pride. The pride comes from making something good, whether it’s a cattle station, a house, your family life, wealth, knowledge, or a set of values. And the next part, following that, is all about making sure that the things you’ve done best don’t die out with you, but are handed on. You can’t fully respect someone whose children are failures, because if they are then the parents have failed too, somewhere along the line.’

‘And the other answer?’

The line of mountains, blue against the pale sky, dipped and swung, like music, singing the shapes and contrasts of the earth.

‘The other answer, to me, is how often you can have a moment - they don’t come all that often - when you think you can see everything, and everything’s connected. Moments when you feel your vision’s complete. You can’t make them come, those moments, but you can know how precious they are when they arrive.’

She wanted to tell him about the statements of the cloud that came out of the valley on the other side of the plains, but felt the knowledge was ... not that it was too precious, but that it wasn’t hers to share.

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Desire

Claire was first to know why he’d come because she felt a stirring of interest. Inexperienced as she was, she knew that interest was a step on the path to desire, and beyond that lay a fulfilment which was all around her in nieces and nephews, brought into the world by acts kept away from sight, or even discussion. The builders’ meals were prepared by Hilda, with Gwen or Audrey helping, and eaten in the kitchen at Alec’s house. There was no need, beyond curiosity, for Claire to go near, but she found herself waking in the nights, and straining to catch any sound of movement: she felt there was someone not far away, watching, only to realise, in the clear light of morning, that she didn’t know whether she had apprehended someone lurking, or merely feared that he was there. As the days - nights - went by, she could not conceal from herself that an inner part of her did not fear the silent man’s approach, but wished it. Her room had an outside door. She could, if she wished, slip into the night to meet the figure she feared, and wished, was there. If she went to him, could she have passion by night and normalcy for the day? Her reading told her that people had contrived to do this. If she did, would it mean leaving her family? She would certainly be letting it down, but how could she leave it without disappointing them? Her brothers, she saw, had added women to the family, turning themselves into husbands - sexual men - by the law of custom and common practice. Why could she not do the same? Did someone have to give her away?

If she could be given, could she not be taken?

If she could be given, could she not make the gift herself, by a bold, if secret decision?

What would be the price to pay if she did?

What would be the meaning of the action, when the time came, years hence, to judge whether she’d done well or unwisely?

She felt ignorant, tempted, but to what she wasn’t sure, and her mother noticed. ‘You’ve been strange these last few days. Something’s going through your mind you don’t want anyone to know about.’

Claire felt she was diverting her mother when she said, ‘I’ve been thinking, and wondering. About how people form families. How long was it between the time you first met father and the time you decided to be married? I don’t think you’ve ever told us that.’ Belle saw at once where the trouble lay, and told her husband as they lay in bed that might.

‘The very thing I feared.’

Belle said, ‘Tell Pugsley to leave him in Portree next time they go down, and never bring him back.’

‘He’d say he couldn’t sack a man without giving him a reason, and if I told him our reason, Pugsley’d laugh. I think he’d like to cause trouble, so he could have the pleasure of looking on and enjoying.’

Belle was filled with contempt. ‘Enjoyment!’

‘Some people don’t mind watching others brought low.’.

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Thomas is dying

Thomas Patterson rarely allowed himself to sit between sunrise and sunset. Claire was surprised when Keith, her first, told her, ‘Granpa’s under the tree.’ Something was wrong. She found her father sitting on the ground, one hand pressing restlessly against his breast-bone, the other propping up his forehead. ‘Father?’ she called, and it seemed to her that her cry had echoes that went as far as the edges of their mountain run, and further again, into the infinity that kills all efforts to question and so to understand. ‘You’re not well!’ He mumbled something about being all right. She, knowing that a corner had been turned, told her boy, ‘Get daddy. Tell him to be quick.’ The boy ran inside. Claire knelt beside her father, closer to him than she’d been since the day of her wedding. ‘Are you feeling any pain, daddy?’ He didn’t reply. ‘Is it hurting?’ He shook his head, but a moment later he leaned back a little, resting against the huge snowgum that had grown for years outside his fence. ‘Good job this is here,’ he said with an attempt at whimsy. ‘I mightn’t be much good without it.’ She felt it was an admission of weakness: no, a realisation that his end was approaching and was, to his eyes if to no others’, already in view. She looked around, feeling foolish. What was there to see?

Clive, her husband, was coming with their boy. Seeing him study the man she was holding, she sensed that Clive’s appraisal was different, in some way she couldn’t describe, from her own. He was inspecting, studying, as he came to where they were. ‘We’ll get you inside, Thomas,’ he said. ‘We’ll put you on your bed so you can lie down a while. How do you feel about walking? Can you manage?’ Thomas nodded, but when he tried to get up, nothing happened. ‘Not feeling too good,’ was all he could say. ‘The boys,’ Clive said. ‘Alec and Scott and Hugh. Better get them to carry him in.’ He meant his wife to do this, but she bristled. He could feel the mistake before he’d realised what he’d done wrong. ‘Sorry Claire. Stay with your dad. I’ll get’em. You’d better come with me, Keith.’ He strode towards the nearest of the three later homes. Claire said to her father, ‘Clive’ll get the boys, daddy. They’ll carry you in.’ She felt that a fate she’d never considered had taken over her voice, and was infusing her well-intentioned words with an even simpler, though dreadful, message. ‘You’ll feel better when you’ve had a lie down.’ Her voice shook. ‘You don’t lie down in the daytime, do you daddy? Sorry about that. Just for a little while till you’re strong again. It’s only sensible, you know that.’ Thomas made no reply. He felt, this old man in her arms, as if he were preoccupied by something he alone could see, or sense in the offing. He was looking down. She rubbed his hands, and twined her fingers about his neck - the collar, it occurred to her, that he hated to wear when he was working. ‘We’ll have you back on the job soon, daddy. We need you, to make us strong.’ She knew, as she said it, that she was talking about the weakness, the failing, that was spreading through his body, and hers. ‘We wouldn’t be able to go on without you,’ she said, and again she knew as she spoke, that the truth was the opposite of the words she was using. What was in conflict, here: what hopes, what desperate desires for the impossible, what realisations of what had to come?

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Men feel reduced

The long rise ended. They made their way, climbing slowly, to the hut at Mount Macalister. They lit a fire, and, habit ruling them, Claire took the billy to the little fall not far away. She gave it to her mother to hang above the blaze. Belle said, ‘Thomas always sat where you’re sitting. He hated not to be able to keep an eye on things. Don’t you think you’re maybe crowding Clive too much? You’re too strong!’ Claire was used to her mother’s oblique rushes at unspoken, unmentionable things. ‘He heard some men talking in a bar in Crewe. They didn’t say much, but he asked me about the time those men were building the last two houses on the plains.’ Belle raised a brow. ‘I told him about a foolish desire I had.’ She paused; her mother said nothing. ‘I told him as honestly as I could, expecting him to take it in his stride. Instead, he’s gone all funny about it. He’s gone back to Weldon to try and work it out, but I know he’ll never do it on his own. I have to guide him through it. Make him accept me again. Have you got any ideas?’

Her mother stared at the fire. ‘Men feel reduced. They have to be big, in their own minds at least. That’s why it’s dangerous to tell them things because they think that if they didn’t think of it themselves, then they’ve been lessened. If a man’s like that, you have to keep feeding him things so he thinks he’s big. It’s either that, or ...’ Claire was waiting ‘... find a way to make them grow up. The best way would be through the children, somehow. That’d be up to you to find, but that’s the way I’d be going. I can’t tell you any more than that.’

They drank their tea, nibbled Hilda’s cake, and resumed their ride. It was dark when they reached the house, lit the lamps, unpacked, made a fire in the lounge, put sheets on the beds they were going to use and said goodnight to each other. Claire stood by the fire for a minute after her mother’s door had closed. From the wall above her a photo of Belle stared at the room - a glance full of apprehension and strength as affecting as she must have been on the day the picture was taken, shortly after her wedding, more than fifty years before. The old lady was still riding and still had something to say. Strength was flowing both ways between the two women. On another wall, Claire saw a photo taken at her own wedding, not so long ago. She went to it with a candle, trying to read the strain on her husband’s face. It was all he could do, she remembered, to get through the day. He hated to be organised, arranged; he wanted to manage everything for himself. That too, she saw, was a piece of advice as strong as her mother’s. She went to her room - their room - blew out the candle and climbed into bed. She lay on her back, remembering the sound of cracking sticks in the night, and the warmth of a husband, and she saw that the wish to be proudly alone and to be warmly embraced would be parts of her as long as she lived.

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Cloud

It had never been so dense. It was sitting at the edge of the valley, exactly at her level. It was swirling with internal energy, static in its position for the moment, yet she could tell, looking at the instability of the mass, that air currents and pressure systems were in a fierce but narrow disequilibrium about where, or whether, it would move.

Something gave, and it flushed across Five Mile Plain: in hardly more than a moment it had swirled around Claire Ransome, née Patterson, and the latest of her horses, named, this one, Bounty, and Claire couldn’t see the ground at her horse’s feet. Then he did a treacherous thing. Scared, he sidled backwards, and twisted, as if to find a way to confront this monster. He’d turned them around.

How far? Claire jumped off, clinging to the reins, then, solidly on the grassy earth, she replayed in her mind the horse’s movements, first forward, then in reverse. She dug a line in the ground with her riding boot, then chided the horse. ‘Silly to be scared, Bount! It does nobody any good. For a moment you took my direction from me. You haven’t got a nose like a dog for smelling tracks. You depend on me. You mustn’t throw me out. Now calm down, calm down, Bounty. Let’s see what it’s got to say to us.’

It was thicker than she’d seen it. It swirled till she could hardly see her feet. Bounty, she could tell, was terrified. He wanted to stumble through the cloud in panic, lost until it moved away, somewhere in the following day, perhaps, but Claire was keeping her feet steadily on the mark she’d gouged. When the cloud had spoken she’d want to move, and had to have a bearing.

She waited. Bounty calmed a little, his will yielding to hers. The cloud thinned; she saw, first, the mark at her feet, then, for a second, quickly vanished, some rocks to her left. They were where they should have been. That much was safe. What word?

‘There’s always an end’, came a voice. ‘It will be like this.’ Claire lowered her head, looking at the mark on the ground, which appeared and disappeared as the cloud thickened or abated. ‘You must be ready for the void’, it said. ‘Your children have replaced you.’ Claire felt fear in her. Had it come to take her? Warn? Or merely to frighten, so that when it came in earnest she was ready?

‘To make you ready’, the voice told her. ‘Look after your husband. He must come when you come.’ The voice grew distant in the last word. Claire knew the message had ended. She stood in the swirling cloud, tears streaming from her eyes. She hadn’t been called this time, but she’d been warned that the next call would be for her - and her husband: she’d often wondered if one would outlast the other, and she’d been told. She looked about with eyes that couldn’t penetrate, amazed that something so alien could be so frank, so attuned. ‘My husband,’ she said to the cloud. ‘My son. My girl.’ The cloud was indifferent, and cold. Claire’s waterproof coat was glistening with moisture. Did Moses come down from his mountain saturated, she wondered, and the silliness of the thought made her facial muscles perform the gesture of a smile of relief. ‘It didn’t say how many years I’ve got,’ she told Bounty. ‘I have to make the most of them.’

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Coming to an end

Clive watched his wife come in from the garden. Something was troubling her. She sat in a chair and gripped the arm.

‘What is it?’

Her attention was inside herself, and she didn’t answer. For a moment her eyes turned to him and he knew that if he’d ever seen an appeal for help, it was in her glance. ‘I’ll ring Doctor Robards.’ She shook her head. ‘I’ll be all right. I had a bit of a turn. I bent down to pull out a weed, and I straightened up too quickly.’

‘Blood swirling around in your head.’

‘It made my eyes go blurred. But I can see again. I’ll be all right.’ She was still gripping the chair as if it were her life.

‘I’ll make some tea.’

She shook her head. ‘Whisky.’ He was amazed. She wanted to add, ‘I might as well go out with a bang’, but it would hurt him, and it was Clive she needed to think about, not her own needs, which, obviously to her, if not to him, were spent.

He said, ‘Perhaps in a little while, when you’re feeling a bit more like yourself.’ She laughed, a quaintly old-fashioned musical laugh, a stagey, conventional laugh of someone pretending to be amused when they are in an opposite state. ‘I’m feeling like myself,’ she said. ‘I’ve never done anything else.’ She knew it wasn’t true, because it made her think of the distracted nights and days, before she met Clive, when she lusted after Jack, their former worker who was building houses for her brothers’ families. What would have happened if she’d been Jack’s lover? If she’d had his child? It was no longer a dramatic alternative, merely a might-have-been, a curiosity, like a long forgotten toy or garment you might find at the back of a cupboard, unopened for years. Her house in the mountains was like that now; she’d been squirreling things away to make it feel secure, and soon it would be emptied, or at least cleaned up by her children and their partners: Keith and Leslie, Tania and Robert, the new owners.

No. She remembered. Her will gave everything to Clive, and in the event of him predeceasing her, the estate was divided. Tania got Cairngorm. She’d been told. She knew. In a sense, then, it was already hers. Claire spoke. ‘I only have to make way for her.’

‘What was that, darling? Did you say make way? Who were you thinking of?’ But his wife’s mind had turned into itself again. Clive said, ‘Do you want to lie down, darling. Just for a few minutes till you’re feeling better?’ She shook her head. ‘I’m better if I sit up. In fact, I think I’d be more normal if I was walking. I’m going back into the garden. I’ll walk a little bit, and then I’ll sit under the willow.’ She added, ‘On the seat you gave me last Christmas.’ He felt she’d said it to please him, perhaps to appease him, and sensed that she was weakening. ‘I’ll come with you.’

‘No, my love, I’d like to be by myself for a few minutes. You make that cup of tea and bring it out.’

They’d developed rules, so many of them, in their years together, expressed in courtesies which controlled them. ‘Certainly, my love. Enjoy your walk. I’ll bring your tea when it’s ready.’

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Burials

When the service was over the Pattersons wandered around the cemetery, pointing out the graves of people they’d known, explaining relationships and the transference of identities into marriages. The minister said goodbye to Keith and Tania, and drove away. The elderly men who’d been Claire’s brothers spoke to their descendants. Gloom and inevitability carried the scene. Leslie, Keith’s wife, had never had a head for family detail, and was looking uncomfortable amid the granite and marble, the crosses and solemn last words. Tania, restless and unhappy, joined her.
‘You know whose grave this is?’

Leslie had no idea. ‘Andrew Bignell Patterson’ had been cut into the stone. ‘Was he someone special?’

‘He’s special to us, unfortunately. I think I mean unfortunately. Perhaps it simply doesn’t matter.’

Leslie wondered what she meant. ‘Why?’

‘That grave,’ Tania said, ‘is a magnet to the family.’

There was nobody near it, except themselves. ‘What power does it have?’

‘A lot. That person ...’ she glanced at the bulky, sombre grave ‘... was my mother’s brother. He died before my mother was born.’ Leslie looked at the dates: 1903 - 1920. ‘Your mother was born in 1921?’

‘Right. Andrew Bignell Patterson was born in Crewe hospital, so when he died, his mother - my grandmother - decided to bury him in Crewe. She could have buried him in Portree, but she made a different decision. Here in Crewe.’ They looked about. ‘Then, when my grandfather died, his wife had him buried beside the son they’d lost.’ Tania pointed to the grave beside them. ‘When Belle - that’s my grandmother - died she was buried here, with her husband and her first child.’

Leslie looked at the dates. ‘Almost half a century! It gets to you, doesn’t it.’

‘So when mum thought her time might be approaching, she made it clear that she was to be buried here. Hence today. And dad decided that though he’d never lived on this side of the mountains, he’d be buried with his wife.’ She pointed at the open, double grave. ‘Mum’s brothers are still reasonably healthy, but they’ll all be buried here, unless they get cranky and rebellious.’ She smiled. ‘Which is quite likely, come to think of it.’

Leslie’s mind jumped ahead. ‘You and Keith. That’ll be a decision you’ll have to make. Oh! I see what you mean ...’

She was standing, she realised, where she would be buried, unless her husband decided to break the chain, or she, if she outlived him, chose to be buried apart.

‘We’re in a chain of circumstances, aren’t we? I’d never given it a thought.’ She looked at Tania. ‘What are you going to do?’

‘Mum would have said we don’t need to make decisions, we can let events take their course.’

‘That means ... ending up where we are.’

‘I suppose it does.’

They took each other’s hands, and then, the shared idea pulling them more strongly, they clung to each other in amazement as much as grief.

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Can we just get on with whatever’s going to happen?

Jennifer, Emma, Nancy and Claire each had a wish to appraise what they’d gained in their time at the school, a wish to leave it as quickly as possible, and a compulsion to linger, like a ghost unwilling to admit its departure from the flesh. Young women, it had been made clear to them that bringing children into the world was their special role, and it encumbered them, a burden they wanted to be freed from, yet knew was inescapable. Their flight in freedom would be a short one. Emma said to her friends, ‘Time to go! Here’s dad now, with the car!’ She waved, catching her father’s eye, then directed him with further waves to turn the car so that it was pointing to the doorway of the boarding house. A minute later the girls were bringing their suitcases to the car which stood, boot and doors open, ready to receive. Laughing, the girls piled into it everything they owned; Emma told her father they’d walk to the house, so long as he did them the favour of driving the luggage. He smiled, closed doors, made an inquiry or two, told them he’d see them in a minute, and drove away, telling his daughter, ‘Your mother’s got morning tea on the table. Don’t be long!’

The girls assured him they wouldn’t be long, but they walked slowly, once they were in the street. ‘Do you realise,’ Jennifer said, ‘the two or three minutes it’s going to take us to get to your place, Emma, might be the only time we ever own in our whole blessed lives?’

Claire stopped walking. The others stopped. They were standing by a brick fence, with a banksia rose trailing from some wires it had been given to climb. ‘We’re all free now,’ she said. ‘We can forget Fidget’s rules. So long as the war holds off,’ she said doubtfully. Jennifer said, ‘I’m afraid!’ She stood stock still. Emma was taken aback at the way things were moving. ‘Why Jenny? What can you possibly be afraid of?’

Jennifer, from the wealthiest family, by far, of the girls in her year, looked down the quiet, thoroughly respectable, and therefore constrained, street. ‘There’s so much force,’ she said, ‘all ready to get loose. We can’t be sure of anything, really. That’s why we have to hold hard to what we’ve got.’

Nancy thought this was an admission of weakness. ‘If you’re only holding on to things, you’re going backwards, don’t you know that? To succeed, you have to be going forward. If you’re not forever claiming something new, and trying to achieve it, you’re losing. It’s just like things that aren’t being used, they’re dying, or rotting. Going bad.’ She thought a moment, then added, ‘You have to keep pushing on. That’s what I’m going to do.’

Emma urged her friends. ‘Half an hour ago, while Mr Gullett was riffling through his papers, you said to me, Jennifer, “What sort of cake’s your mother been making?” So can anyone tell me why we’re standing in the street, trying to guess what our futures are going to be like?’

Jennifer took up the challenge. ‘Because that’s exactly what it’s natural for us to be doing. This is the moment of our decisions. It’s only a short walk to the cake, but it’s a long walk to ... somewhere else ... don’t you see what I mean?’ Claire thought she did. ‘Every moment,’ she said, ‘is full of decisions. It’s as if we’re standing near a tap, or a light switch. We could turn them on, or we could leave them alone. If we go one way, that’s how things turn out. If we do the other, everything’s different forever after.’ She looked at her friends. None of them knew what was in the others’ heads. They’d been close for ever so long, they’d be together that night, and then, after their homeward journeys, they’d be together again in January, for their initiation into mountain life, courtesy of Claire. ‘Are we going to stand here all day, yabbering?’ Emma said, ‘or can we, maybe, just get on with whatever’s going to happen?’.

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The writing of this book:

As I write this note I’m not sure whether I’ll print a bound edition of Cloud of knowing, or simply offer it electronically to readers, some of whom may download it and produce it as a book. This is partly a matter of costs, and partly something else. Let’s talk about costs first.

As I write, in early 2006, with the process of setting up the TrojanPress website starting in a few days time, I’m thinking that I may discontinue the print publication of my books, and put the money into issuing more stories as mini-mags, because they are my way of making the public aware of the TrojanPress site. They’re the only publicity I’ve got, apart from word of mouth, and there is a cost: the bill is bigger for printing and cicrculating 10 000 copies of a mini-mag (even though they’re fiendishly cheap for me, and free for you!) than it is for doing a couple of hundred books, printed and bound. So I’m inclined to put the dollars into distributing the mini-mags, my publicity, and getting any new books to the world via the website.

These are only my thoughts of the moment. Things, including my mind, may change!

And now the something else. It’s probably best to start with the Author’s Note at the start of this book (and given elsewhere on this website under the heading ‘About this book’). Here it is:

Some years ago I saw the photo of a girl above the fireplace in a house I visited frequently. There were numerous family photos on the walls, but this one was new to me, and it captured my interest. I was told that the young woman, in the uniform of her school, had been an earlier owner of the house I stood in. I returned to the picture, attracted by the beauty and unconscious vulnerability of those who, having reached their first maturity, have an awareness of life lying before them. What will the future bring? I also sensed that a book could be based on the feeling the picture gave me. A few weeks later, I saw the photo a second time, and a decision made itself. Two days later I began to write the book.

The book’s other theme, the rising of cloud from a valley, was something I had heard about years before, when I lived in eastern Victoria, but had never seen; nor have I seen it now. I have taken the liberty of giving the cloud a purpose, that of clarifying the central character’s mind. In some way the cloud accompanies my girl in a photo, whom I call Claire, from childhood to old age; Claire dies, but the cloud will surely form again, the implication being that it is always available for those ready to listen.

The book is, then, an improvisation on a photo and a cloud. The Claire of my book leads one of the many lives the girl in the photo might have had. No effort was made to research the life actually led by the person in the photo.

‘ An improvisation on a photo and a cloud’: that sounds inoffensive enough, but events turned out unexpectedly. A descendant of the young woman in the photo which stirred me to write was given a copy of the manuscript, liked it initially, she said, then objected strongly. An offence had been done to the ancestors whose spirits lingered in what had been their house. I replied, calling for a dialogue over the differences in the way we saw the book which had divided us so suddenly and so sharply. No dialogue ever ensued, so I withdrew from the house, where I had been a regular visitor, and the friendship, which had been important to both of us over many years. This is a matter of deep sadness and regret. I put the book aside for a number of years, but then, on returning to it, I felt that it embodied a great deal of the qualities of the mountain people it portrayed, and decided that it should be given to the world, as it is, now, via this website.

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