Oscar and Lucinda - First Edition cover
This novel about two strange characters, Oscar and Lucinda, tackles the great gambles in life – religious faith and human love.
KumKum, Zakia, & Gopa
The writing has a different kind of energy than novels written in the West. The hero and heroine are people who have a surprising angularity, and share a great obsession.
Mathew, Kavita, & Esther
That the persons named in the title only meet in the novel after 200 pages makes the reader impatient with the often detailed and rather pointless descriptions that burden the book.
The image of the glass church dominates the last quarter of the book, and a brilliant image it is. The conclusion sees the church itself turned into a fateful vault for Oscar – recalled two generations later by the great grandchild who is the unseen narrator of the story.
The group of readers pose at the end of the reading:
Kavita, Esther, Gopa, KumKum, Ankush, Mathew, Sunil, & Joe
To read the full account click below ...
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
Reading on Mar 28, 2014
Present: Esther, KumKum, Joe, Sunil, Mathew, Gopa, Kavita, Zakia, Ankush
Absent:Talitha (out of town), Preeti (out of town), Thommo (busy with sister's travel)
These are the dates for the next two sessions:
Apr 21-27: Shakespeare Festival, with reading by KRG on Sat Apr 26
May9, 2014: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gopa who chose the book introduced it. An Australian friend in 2004 suggested she would enjoy the novel and when she found it in London at a charity shop for 50p she could not resist – or rather took a gamble, suggested Sunil, laughing. It is not like the usual novel with heroes and heroines who have no blotch on their characters. Even Maggie of Mill on the Floss, the novel by George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans), had qualities. The writing too has a different kind of energy than novels written in the West. Someone suggested its size (519 p or 180,000 words) was a qualifying factor to be considered for the Man Booker Prize. KumKum thought that the prize laid even more store by 'strangeness,' a quality this novel is blessed with.
Esther provided a link to the BBC Book Club interview with Peter Carey:
Lucinda's character can be ascribed to her upbringing. She was a born-again feminist. Toward the end of the novel it is related that after she loses everything in her wager with Oscar, she goes to work in a pickle factory and fights for the rights of women workers.
The oddest of passions brings Oscar & Lucinda together – gambling. But in the novel both of their worst fears come true. Oscar's was the fear of drowning, and hers, the loss of her inherited wealth.
Ankush counted the number of sects of Christianity that show up in the novel, many of them represented by individuals who are only caricatures, like Mr Stratton, according to Joe. However, Gopa demurred – she said she is familiar with two priests who are exactly like that. A 'structure for divining the true will of God' is mentioned in Ch 9 – Throwing Lots. It comes across that the four contending denominations in Hennacombe were Evangelists, Baptists, Catholics, and Anglicans. For a detailed article on the novel see
Bob’s Dreaming: Playing with Reader Expectations in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda by Sue Ryan-Fazilleau, University of La Rochelle
Another article suggests that the Victorian legacy of doubt in Christianity did not affect the characters in this novel. The final sinking of the glass church is seen as a precursor to modern times with its lack of belief:
About the wager on God's existence and the role of the narrator who appears here and there in the novel, see:
Sunil said there are 142 Christian sects in Kochi, including one called the Children of God, who had to hastily change their name because it belonged to a group that had gained some notoriety abroad.
The reading from the chapter 'Happiness' finds Oscar and Lucinda cohabiting, but separate and wakeful in their beds:
there was a great closeness, the closeness of intimates, but also a considerable distance, the distance not of strangers, but of neighbours. there was a great closeness, the closeness of intimates, but also a considerable distance, the distance not of strangers, but of neighbours.
The intimacy grows, Lucinda overcomes her prejudices and day to day chores bring them closer:
they became friends, by scrubbing the pitted, checkered tiles of the kitchen floor, working side by side, creeping backwards.
It's all peaceful domestic bliss, said Joe laughing! What else can a defrocked priest do, asked KumKum? Ankush complained that when reading the novel he became impatient that the two protagonists had not met even after 200 pages.
Esther chose the chapter 'Prince Rupert's Drops.' For more information, see
Prince Ruperts drops
The description of the fabled 'glass of the most phenomenal strength' which can sustain a hammer blow without breaking, entrances the reader, as it did Lucinda. Esther’s readings ended with a paragraph composed of a single161-word sentence, as Esther noted. Its rapturous note expresses the thrill experienced by Lucinda who decides to buy the glass works on that consideration alone: 'a joyous and paradoxical thing, as good a material as any to build a life from.'
Gopa said the writing style is different than that of the majority of UK & US writers. KumKum remarked that some of the characters do not help the story move along at all. The governess, Miriam, is quite a character, however.
Kavita read the chapter in which Lucinda realises she is in love with Oscar while walking with him:
They promenaded, arm in arm, up the hill, towards Castlereagh. He had, he declared, "an idea" he would not tell her. The idea gave his mouth its rosebud smile. He would tell her his idea at dinner – she would be his guest.
The phrase 'she was starched and pressed as a Baptist in a riding habit,' brought a smile to readers' lips.
The passage chosen from the chapter 'After Whitsunday' describes the cleric, Denis Hasset. He takes the measure of Lucinda sitting opposite him in grey silk and trousers, and assesses her as 'remarkable young woman, not his type, but unlike anyone he had known before.' As in much of the book the description of the two people occupies a large part of the matter.
The weird events of the chapter titled 'Oscar and Miriam' were the subject of Sunil's reading. Quicker than the Odd Bod can roll over he begets a child by Mriam, and all because of a singular skill she exercised, 'the moment a ministering hand is placed on that part of my anatomy …'
The reading ends with Oscar walking into the glass church while it was still floating on the wooden base set on the catamaran; he sits on a chair in the middle. The whole edifice sinks, Oscar drowns; and thus said Joe, the author solves the critical problem of how to end the novel. Someone suggested the author's publishing agent must have been after him to finish, and under pressure he found the key to ending the novel.
Joe, like Ankush, noted it takes half the book before Oscar and Lucinda meet. The reader has to cut through a thicket of descriptions, replete with details. For instance, does anyone recall by the end of the novel that early on Mr Fig had taken off his boot and stretched his leg beneath the table so that his stockinged foot was somewhere in amongst Miss Malcolm's skirts?
Typical of such pointless and tedious description is this of Mrs Stratton making scones:
This was not for the lunch, but the tea Mrs Stratton liked to give for the Old Men (although the Squire looked after them anyway and Mrs Stratton had no business to give away what she could not afford). She needed the big table to make the scones, but Theophilus had the table so she tried to make do in the pantry, using the back of the wooden breakfast tray. She balanced it on the top of a stool and had to kneel to roll the dough across it. But the tray slipped and the dough fell. She said nothing out loud. She scraped the dough off the floor and carried it to the little window to examine it. She was a thin, nervous woman with dark sunken eyes and brisk movements, but she was, while she examined the dough, very still. She was thinking, weighing up, knowing the fuss that would be made if they found her dough in the bucket for the hens. She pushed the dough together and sat it on the tray. Then she went to the doorway where she surveyed the mournful man. He did not see her. As she watched, he sighed.”
No wonder, said Joe, he could read this 500-page novel fast for one can delightfully skip through it, although he had to decelerate toward the end, when it became more interesting.
He liked that glass church very much. What a brilliant way to capture a man’s heart! Unfortunately it becomes Oscar’s mausoleum as well.
Sunil said half the clergy were into gambling. Pascal's argument on why we must assume God exits is also adumbrated in the book.
Ankush chose a passage on gambling which is one of the two obsessions revealed in the book. When it turns out by interrogation that Lucinda knows the ins and outs of gambling terms in cards, Osacr says she is not culpable, and there is no sin to be absolved of.
"Our whole faith is a wager, Miss Leplastrier. We bet – it is all in Pascal and very wise it is too, although the Queen of England might find him not nearly Presbyterian enough – we bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it.”
Sunil remarked that Mr Stratton uses gambling to make money (with codebooks sent by his adopted son, Oscar) and goes bust trying, and commits suicide in the end.
In an interview Peter Carey denied that the novelist, George Eliot, had any influence on this novel, and in fact he did not approve of George Eliot, who has similarities with Lucinda.
Gopa read the passage where Oscar is punished cruelly for eating Christmas pudding because his father (one of the Plymouth Brethren sect) believed 'pudding was the fruit of Satan.' Joe wondered why she read the passage of child abuse – there were after all many other bright or curious passages in the novel. In those days it was not child abuse to rap a child on the head, said Gopa. Carey never meant to criticise the church. His life was 'shaped by Christianity,' he says in the interview.
Sunil had a story about a priest in Kanamaly who having preached one week against the evils of drink was found quite pissed the next week.
Matthew mentioned that for a book of this size the glossary is much too small! KumKum had a story about some brethren-type of person who came to evangelise her all dressed in a pressed shirt and tie in the mid-summer heat of Delhi.
Ch 77 Happiness
She did not expect to be happy whilst parcelled up in a grubby apron, clogs on her feet, scrubbing her own floors, or being snubbed at the greengrocer's, kept out of her own works, denied the company of Dennis Hasset, becoming so cut off from life that her only companion was a homeless stray, a defrocked priest with blue-stained hands and a sweat-weary smell. These unpromising circumstances served to distract her attention whilst happiness snuck up on her like a poacher in the night.
She had not known she was happy, but it had been silently remarked on by others, by the glass blowers, by Mr d'Abbs, by Mr Chas Ahearn who had paid her a visit and brought her a gift of bantam eggs. They noticed, because her manner was gentler, because they were spared those ironies and sarcasms which Mr Ahearn, for one, had thought much too pronounced of late. She kissed his cheek and called him "uncle" and the old chap blushed to the lobes of his big fleshy ears.
Yet she had not recognized the moment when her scales had tipped from "down" to "up." She had been too busy to notice, until this morning, the Sunday before Advent. She was walking with her lodger down past her piebald cottage (half of it whitewashed, half red brick). It was an hour or so before early service and the Bal main bells were still silent. Sleek Herefords (the property of the bankrupt estate of Whitefield's Farm) gorged themselves on the new spring pasture. Lucinda wore a long white cotton voile with tiny roses worked into it. She carried her gloves and prayer book in one hand and her bonnet in the other. She walked along the thin cattle track along the spine of the point. There was still dew, not a lot, but she felt it soak into the hem of her dress. She did not mind. Oscar strode through the calf-high grass beside her. Nothing happened. Nothing was said. But she thought-I am happy.
She looked at Oscar. He did not notice her. He was busy looking out for snakes, surveying the harbour-a sea of rough hills poured full of silver glass. H had his head up, his head down, his eyes everywhere at once. He had stuck a tiny blue wildflower into the band of his tall black hat. She thought what a pleasant companion he had turned out to be, and if they were in such disgrace that the barely educated vicar of Balmain should think it best not to "see" them as they filed past him out of church, it was a most superior kind of disgrace.
She had judged him too hastily. This was a bad habit. It had caused her trouble before. She had compared him to Dennis Hasset and had pursed her lips when he picked up his tea-cup in a certain way, or placed the pot back on the table a little too heavily. She had felt slighted when he had scurried back into his room and shut the door on her. And yet-how quickly it happened-she had come to be proud of the propriety with which they now shared the house, the sense of measured discipline (a virtue she much admired) that they brought to their conduct so that there was a great closeness, the closeness of intimates, but also a considerable distance, the distance not of strangers, but of neighbours. They occupied a position well above those Philistines who snubbed and slighted them. God, who saw all things, would not find their conduct unbecoming.
They did not gamble or take hazards of any type.
Oscar had no experience of female friendship. At first he was shy with her, stammered, tripped over himself, tried to make himself invisible around her. Only in his unholy dreams did he ever imagine anything even slightly more intimate. And if there had been a maid, this is how it might have stayed. But Mrs Froud had retired due to being in a certain condition, and there was no maid at all. There was a cottage that must be looked after, a fireplace that must be red-leaded, soap to be made, carpets beaten, the brass doorknobs taken to with halves of lemon. Seeing how the young mistress worked-quick, small steps, slap of brush, flick of duster, smack of mop, clatter of bucket, an energy quite in excess of what was promised by her physical size-the lodger took off his shiny jacket, rolled up his sleeves to reveal thin milk-white arms, and worked beside her. Lucinda was embarrassed at first. She did not think it manly.
And yet this is how they became friends, by scrubbing the pitted, checkered tiles of the kitchen floor, working side by side, creeping backwards. They did their jobs inexpertly. They drank tea by the potful and kept the leaves to use in rug-cleaning. And when they had at last finished, usually around midnight, Lucinda would kick off her shoes and let them drop on the damp floor and Oscar would put his feet up on a chair. He would be smudged with red-lead, or W. G. Nixey's black-lead, and have sticky wax on his elbows. She thought him an "old woman," a "kind soul," "odd fellow." Sometimes she looked at him and saw him as if she had never seen him before-a "vision," humming, stirring his tea with the blunt end of his knife, hooting with high laughter, talking Latin which he expected her to understand. He was, in his conversation, so elliptical, so tangential. He made her feel plain, uncultured, inelegant. She did not guess her cast-off shoes were "dainty," the object of his admiration.
She saw what she had seen aboard the Leviathan-that he was not a man to be so easily patronized, that he was a passionate man, an enthusiastic man, who would plunge into the jungle of ideas, not fearfully, but impatiently (thwack, slap, wet clothes from the copper), but also a pleasure.
He was very homesick and liked to talk about England. It was a different England from the one which had so disappointed her. It was a dear, green place, and she could not know that the Strattons' house was damp and cold or that the Baptist boys had made him eat a stone. He talked fondly of the Strattons whom he called "my patrons" and did not tell her that Hugh Stratton, having as much success with horse-races as he had had with farming, had used Oscar's system to lose all his capital and was into debt so deep he was now begging money from men he had not known since Oriel.
There was a bright white pack of cards in the cedar sideboard by Oscar's elbow. He saw it there, sitting askew beside a ball of grey wool and a tangled tape measure, saw it frequently, each evening when he reached out for the sherry decanter (engraved with the image of an emu) and poured out the two thimblefuls which was their "nightcap." He said nothing about the cards. He imagined his hostess-so disciplined in her running of the household-untroubled by them. He wisher* he had the strength of character to fling them away, but having made himself ridiculous aboard the Leviathan he dared not.
They did not discuss cards, but what they did not talk about gave their evenings a tense and tingling edge and left them both happy, yes, but wakeful in their beds.
Ch 32 Prince Rupert's Drops
You need not ask me who is Prince Rupert or what is a batavique because I do not know. I have, though, right here beside me as I write (I hold it in the palm of my left hand while the right hand moves to and fro across the page) a Prince Rupert drop-a solid teardrop of glass no more than two inches from head to tail. And do not worry that this oddity, this rarity, was the basis for de la Bastie's technique for toughening glass, or that it led to the invention of safety glass-these are practical matters and shed no light on the incredible attractiveness of the drop itself which you will understand faster if you take a fourteen-pound sledgehammer and try to smash it on a forge. You cannot. This is glass of the most phenomenal strength and would seem, for a moment, to be the fabled unbreakable glass described by the alchemical author of Mappae Clavicula. And yet if you put down your hammer and take down your pliers instead-I say "if," I am not recommending it you will soon see that this is not the fabled glass stone of the alchemists, but something almost as magical. For although it is strong enough to withstand the sledgehammer, the tail can be nipped with a pair of blunt-nosed pliers. It takes a little effort. And once it is done it is as if you have taken out the keystone, removed the linchpin, kicked out the foundations. The whole thing explodes. And where, a moment before, you had unbreakable glass, now you have grains of glass in every corner of the workshop-in your eyes if you are not careful and what is left in your hand you can crumble-it feels like sugar without danger.
It is not unusual to see a glass blower or a gatherer scrabbling around in a kibble, arm deep in the oily water, sorting through the little gobs of cast-off cullet, fossicking for Prince Rupert's drop. The drops are made by accident, when a tear of molten glass falls a certain distance and is cooled rapidly.
You will find grown men in the glass business, blowers amongst them, who have handled molten metal all their life, and if you put a Prince Rupert's drop before them, they are like children. I have this one here, in my hands. If you were here beside me in the room, I would find it almost impossible not to demonstrate it to you, to take my pliers and-in a second-destroy it.
So it was a Prince Rupert's drop, shaped like a tear, but also like a seed, that had a powerful effect on Lucinda Leplastrier. It is the nature of these things. You can catch a passion from them, and the one in question, the first one Lucinda saw-at an age when she had dimples on her knees-was a particularly beautiful specimen, twisted red and milk-white glass from the damp brick island of Murano. It was sent to Abel Leplastrier by his great friend John Bell, FRS, the author of the enthusiastic piece in the Britannica. And Lucinda, entering Sydney on her bed of cauliflowers, would have reason to remember the day it arrived, eight years before, in Panamatta.
You can catch a passion from them, and the one in question, the first one Lucinda saw-at an age when she had dimples on her knees-was a particularly beautiful specimen, twisted red and milk-white glass from the damp brick island of Murano. It was sent to Abel Leplastrier by his great friend John Bell, FRS, the author of the enthusiastic piece in the Britannica. And Lucinda, entering Sydney on her bed of cauliflowers, would have reason to remember the day it arrived, eight years before, in Panamatta.
The post-office steps were made from wood and there was a great fat swathe of sunshine spilled across them. It was winter and the sunshine was welcome. She could feel it through the cotton of her dress. The packet steamer had just arrived from Sydney. Her papa sat beside her on the step. He had Mr Bell's parcel. It was this that took his attention and he could be no more bothered by the complaints of the owners of passing skirts and trousers (sour-smelling wool, velvet with mothballs) than by the demands of all the other mail from Home; these last he threw into his sugar bag.
She felt herself shot through with dread. She did as she was bade. She sat on the steps. She cradled the sugar bag in her lap for comfort, and watched her father run away from her. Down the steps he went, two at a time, pushing past brilliantined clerks and bent-backed lags. He sprinted-a broad man with short legs-across Church Street. He raised his arm and hurled the glass at the sandstone wall of the magistrate's court. A policeman rose from his chair on the veranda of the court. He watched as her papa picked up the glass humbug. The policeman called out something over his shoulder and another policeman-a thin man with a grey beard almost as wide as his chest-came out to join him. Together they both stared at her papa who, without knowing himself observed, now walked back across the rutted street, fouling his boots on steaming ox dung, wiping them clean on a surviving patch of tussock grass. The thin policeman went back into the court. The other policeman resumed his seat. Her papa trudged up the steps and-no longer smelling quite so sweet - sat beside her. He put his hand into his jacket pocket, and produced his clasp knife. His hands were trembling. He had difficulty setting the knife the way he wanted it-with the largest blade pulled out just a fraction. He looked at Lucinda and gave a gruesome sort of grin. Then he put the tail of the Prince Rupert's drop between the blade and handle and forced the blade hard home.
The drop shattered, of course. It sprayed like brown sugar across the post-office steps, sprinkled a young widow's bonnet, dusted the black whiskers of a flash-looking man in nankeen breeches. There were other affected. There was much brushing and head turning, and perhaps there would have been trouble, for Parramatta could still be a violent place, but when these who had been so rudely assaulted located their assailant, they found him weeping; and not only him, but the solemn little girl beside him. They could not know-how could they?-that while the father and daughter had tears in common, this single effect was produced by two quite different causes.
For Abel Leplastrier had been given, in John Bell's letter, an annotated index to the event he had just witnessed. The glass was by way of being a symbol of weakness and strength; it was a cipher for someone else's heart. It was a confession, an accusation, a cry of pain. It was for this he wept.
Lucinda was moved by something much more simple-grief that such a lovely thing could vanish like a pricked balloon. But her feelings were not unlayered and there was, mixed with that hard slap of disappointment, a deeper, more nourishing emotion: wonder.
It was very more-ish.
It was her mother who provided the second Prince Rupert's drop. This did not arrive unexpectedly, but was sought out by advertisement. The cynical interpretation of this was that Elizabeth Leplastrier, although careful with pennies, would not be denied what her husband and little girl had experienced. The more generous explanation is that the little girl had not stopped talking about it and her mother decided she should have one for her ninth birthday.
It turned out to be a great extravagance, and Abel sulked and made the cynical interpretation.
They "let it off" on the steps of their hut. It was early, with the sun just slanting through the criss-crossed needles of the casuarinas which lined the creek. There was dew on the grass and their boots were wet from it. The larme batavique caught the light and gathered it in like molten metal straight from a glassworks' glory-hole. It withstood her father's hammer and her mother's axe. And then Lucinda-it was her birthday, after all-took the needle-nosed pliers and snapped-it took a grunt to manage it-the tail.
Fireworks made of glass. An explosion of dew. Crescendo. Diminuendo. Silence.
There are drugs that work the same, and while I am not suggesting that our founder purchased the glassworks to get more drops, it is clear that she had the seed planted, not once, but twice, and knew already the lovely contradictory nature of glass and she did not have to be told, on the day she saw the works at Darling Harbour, that glass is a thing in disguise, an actor, is not solid at all, but a liquid, that an old sheet of glass will not only take on a royal and purplish tinge but will reveal its true liquid nature by having grown fatter at the bottom and thinner at the top, and that even while it is as frail as the ice on a Parramatta puddle, it is stronger under compression than Sydney sandstone, that it is invisible, solid, in short, a joyous and paradoxical thing, as good a material as any to build a life from.
Ch 81 Promenade
All this, Lucinda thought, I have inherited from my mama: that I am s too critical, that I ride my hobby horse into the ground, that I have a bad temper, that I will not relax and be quiet and because of this I push away those who mean me well. I will not allow anyone to be a simple "good chap" as my papa always could. How can I be in love with him and be so lacking in the most simple trust?
These thoughts were occasioned by her response to Oscar who, whilst walking up Druitt Street towards Castlereagh, had attempted to take her arm. She had snatched it back on reflex. She was immediately cross at herself for doing so. Tears smeared the gas lights as if they were watercolour. Do not cry. I will not. Take his arm. I cannot. Take it. I cannot. You must.
She took his arm, looking straight ahead, her heart pounding. It was that time of the evening when there is blue in the sky and yellow in the shop lamps. They promenaded, arm in arm, up the hill, towards Castlereagh. He had, he declared, "an idea" he would not tell her. The idea gave his mouth its rosebud smile. He would tell her his idea at dinner-she would be his guest. He teased her nicely with his silence on the subject. He was tall and stretched, with a long, twisting neck and a high black hat against the constraints of which one could see his hair protesting. She was short-the brim of her enormous hat was barely level with his shoulder. His gestures were jerky, hers controlled.
She had no criticism of his dress, which was bagged at the knees, dropping at the lapels, rucked around the buttons, while she-although she wore a flowing white cotton-appeared (she knew it and wished it was not so) as starched and pressed as a Baptist in a riding habit.
They were different, and yet not ill matched.
They had both grown used to the attentions that are the eccentric's lot-the covert glances, smiles, whispers, worse. Lucinda was accustomed to looking at no one in the street. It was an out-of-focus town of men with seas of bobbing hats.
But on this night she felt the streets accept them. She thought: When we are two, they do not notice us. They think us a match. What wisdom does a mob have? It is a hydra, an organism, stupid or dangerous in much of its behaviour, but could it have, in spite of this, a proper judgement about which of its component parts fit best together?
They pushed past bold-eyed young women with too many ribbons and jewels, past tight-laced maidens and complacent merchants with their bellies pushing so forcefully against their waistcoats that their shirts showed above their trousers. Lucinda was happy. Her arm rested on Oscar's arm.
She thought: Anyone can see I have been crying. She thought: I have pink eyes like a dormouse. But she did not really care.
Ch 34 After Whitsunday
He was a tall, well-made man in his early thirties. His face could almost be called handsome, and often was, for he gave his companions such a sense of his deep interest in them that they easily overlooked those heavy eyebrows-joined across the bridge of his nose-that marred his looks. He had dark curly hair, elegant side-whiskers, a slightly long face and a dimpled chin. His natural complexion was a step short of olive, although an increasing fondness for claret made it redder than the season could explain. But claret or no, he was one of those people who-should you lay a hand on his arm, say, in comradeship-you would find to be of a surprising hardness: surprising, that is, to you, but not to the twenty-four boys at St Andrew's day school whom he coached in Rugby.
She sat opposite him. She was very young, but he could not tell exactly how young. Her manner, in many respects, was that of a woman in her twenties, although this impression was contradicted not only by her small stature, but in the way her confidence-so bright and clean at the beginning of a sentence where every word was as unequivocable as the unsmudged lines of her perfectly arched eyebrows-would seem to evaporate as she began, not quite to mumble, but to speak less distinctly, and her eyes, which had begun by almost challenging his, now slid away towards bookshelf or window ledge. There was also the charming, rather European way she gestured with her hands they were very flexible and she could bend her palms right back from her wrists, her fingers back at another angle again-and there was something in these gestures, so ostensibly worldly, so expressive, even expansive which, combined with the shyness which her shifting eyes betrayed, gave an impression of great pluck. Dennis Hasset was much touched by her.
She wore an unusual garment: grey silk with a sort of trouser underneath. Dennis Hasset – no matter what his bishop thought – was not a radical, and this garment shocked him, well, not quite shocked, but let us say it gave a certain unsettling note to their interview, although the discord was muted by the quality of the silk and the obvious skill of the dressmaking. These were things he knew about. The garment declared its owner to be at once wealthy and not quite respectable. She was "smart," but not a beauty. There was about her, though, this sense of distillation. Her hands and feet were quite dainty, but it was in her face that he saw this great concentration of essence. It was not that her eyes were small, for they were large. The green iris was not a deeper green, or a brighter green. It was clear, and clean and, in some way he could not rationally explain, a great condensation of green. The eyes were gateways to a fierce and lively intelligence. They were like young creatures which had lost their shells, not yet able to defend themselves.
The mouth was small, but there was no suggestion of meanness, merely-with the lips straight-determination or-when they were relaxed and the plump lower lip was permitted to show-a disturbing (because it appeared to be unconscious) sensuality.
She wore a wide-brimmed grey hat with a kingfisher-blue feather which was, although "dashing," not quite the thing. Her hair – what one could see of it-was brown, less than perfectly tidy. This lack of care, when every other part of her was so neat, and pressed, produced an unsettling impression. The hair seemed wilful. It did not occur to him that her hair was, as she would put it, "like that."
In any case, he knew he had met a remarkable young woman, not his type, but unlike anyone he had known before.
Ch 108 Oscar and Miriam
When Oscar Hopkins and Miriam Chadwick came down the stairs to the cobbler's shop at last, it was to announce their impending marriage.
There was a small wet stain on the back of my great-grandmother's green silk riding habit. This was remarked on-how could it not bebut nothing was ever said out loud, and, in any case, Miriam had plied the young traveller with Mr Hammond's expensive emollients and creams, with stinging iodine, blue-red mercurochrome, bright yellow "Healing Ointment," had rubbed him with so many healing dyes that he soon looked like a tropical fish in his father's aquarium; with so many wet and greasy substances about, no one could be surprised if Miriam also spilled a wee drop on her clothing.
Oscar, when at last he opened the heavy cedar door at the top of the stairs above the cobbler's, had the stunned and slightly vacant air you might see in some one rescued from a burning house.
As he walked down the loud, uncarpeted stairs, he felt his sin declared to all the world.
I love Lucinda Leplastrier.
The cobbler was working at his bench. Oscar could not meet his gaze. He poked instead at a pair of dancing pumps hanging from the door. To these he nodded.
He had fornicated in God's temple, he who had judged the cedar cutters at Urunga.
All my life, he thought, I have sought the devil's murmuring in my ear, have let him persuade me that it is holy that I bet, that I abandon my father, that I draw poor Stratton into the morass, and all the while I am armoured by conceit. I play the saint. When Miss Leplastrier and I were most passionately engaged, I imagined it was I who restrained us from sin, I who ensured our chastity until that happy day (today, today I might have written to her in triumph) when she might have seen what I am and accepted my proposal that we stand as bride and bridegroom in God's sight. But it was not I. And the proof is here: that the moment a ministering hand is placed on that part of my anatomy, the minute, the instant it is touched, the first time in all its life-why, then, I fail the test. And find my Christianity to be but a spiderweb, so easily it is brushed aside. And I am a dog in the street prepared to be crushed by a waggon's wheel in order to let its beastly nature have its head. I cannot even justify my act by calling out "love, love, I did it for love."
His punishment was that he must marry this woman he had compromised. It did not occur to him that it was she who had compromised him. He must marry her. He took the laudanum from his pocket and sipped it in the deep shadowed doorway of the cobbler's shop. The street was lined with bullock waggons all loaded with logs as thick as four big men. The air was fat and warm and syrupy, sweet with forest sap, urine, brandy. There were yellow dogs and yellow clay earth littered with furry bark.
Oscar's eyes remained focused in the middle distance. He sucked in his cheeks, biting them harder than he knew. He limped beside my great grandmother as they set about this business, each equally determined that the job be done properly, and yet with a definite distance between them, like allies in a business venture, or the captains of opposing cricket teams. They posted the banns. It was done in fifteen minutes. They went to Bernie Lovell and each rewrote their wills. It took half an hour. They went to the offices of the Courier-Sun and filled out a little form for the advertisement which announced their engagement.
Only when my great-grandmother saw he did not write "Reverend" in their engagement notice, did she suspect he might not be a clergyman. She certainly had no idea that he was now the owner of a glass church in Sydney and a fortune of ten thousand pounds.
Oscar had forgotten this himself. He was sick at heart, preoccupied by what he had lost, not gained. All he could think was that the glass church was the devil's work, that it had been the agent of murder and fornication. The only clear thing he could think, the only thing he could hear above the raging passions of his beating heart, was how he could destroy the hateful thing.
It was just five o'clock, and the government clerks were already dosing their shutters for the day, when he began to bid her goodbye. She had employment to return to, and although he should have seen the word "Governess" on both her will and the marriage banns, he had not; her employment remained a mystery to him. Like two strangers introduced to business partnership by medium of a newspaper advertisement, they agreed to meet at the post office at ten o'clock upon the morrow. He saw her on to her pony which she had tethered in the government paddock. He must have known, already, that he would not commit himself to her in any but a legalistic way, for he felt only mild dismay to see how she treated the animal. He made the motion of doffing his hat to her, although he had no hat, having given the same to Kumbaingiri Billy's father's sister. He held open the gate of the government paddock, and when the pony and its rider had passed through, he walked thoughtfully down towards the river, dragging a stick behind him, scratching a line in the baked clay track and thus – his route marked by this fine erratic line – he disappeared for ever from my great-grandmother's life.
Ch 80 The Private Softness of Her Skin (Oscar sees the glasshouse church as a thing of beauty and joy, fit for angels (591 words))
But Oscar did not see as Lucinda imagined. As the dust danced in the luminous tunnel of the western sun, he saw not a dumpy little structure, not a common outhouse either, but light, ice, spectra. He saw glass as those who love it perceive it. He understood that it was the gross material most nearly like the soul, or spirit (or how he would wish the soul or spirit to be), that it was free of imperfection, of dust, rust, that it was an avenue for glory.
He did not see an outhouse. He saw a tiny church with dust dancing around it like microscopic angels. It was as clean and pure and free from vanity. It was at once so beautiful and yet so ... decent. The light shone through its transparent, unadorned skin and cast colours on the distempered office walls as glorious as the stained glass windows of a cathedral.
"Oh dear” he said, "oh dearie me."
When he turned towards her, Lucinda saw his face had gone pink. His mouth had become quite small, as if the thing which made him smile was a sherbet sweetmeat that must be sucked in secret.
He said: "I am most extraordinarily happy."
This statement made him appear straighter, taller. His hair was on fire around the edges.
She felt a pleasant prickling along the back of her neck. She thought: This is dangerous territory you are in.
He was light, not substantial. He stood before her scratching his head and grinning and she was grinning back.
"You have made a kennel for God's angels."
Whoa, she thought.
She thought: This is how the devil looks, with a sweet heart-shaped face and violinist's hands.
"I know God's angels do not inhabit kennels." He stepped into the room (she followed him) and crouched beside the tiny glass-house. It was six foot long with all its walls and roof of glass, the floor alone in timber. "But if they did, this surely is the kennel they would demand."
"Please," she said.
"But there is nothing irreligious," he said. "How could we have a sense of humour if our Lord did not?"
She smiled. She thought: Oh dear.
"Do you not imagine," he said, "that our Lord laughs together with his angels?"
She thought: I am in love. How extraordinary.
"How could God, who is all-knowing, not understand the foundation the joke is built on? I mean, that here is something the size of a wolfhound's kennel which, thanks to your industry, is a structure of such beauty and joy as to be a habitation fit for His angels."
He stood still now, having, while he spoke, danced like a brolga around the little glass building. He held out his arms as if he might embrace her and then brought them back across his chest and hugged himself and hunched his back a little.
She thought: He will ask me, not now, but later.
"And haven't you done something?" he said. "Haven't you done something with your life? I must confess to envy."
The setting sun bounced off the red-brick wall of the next-door warehouse. It was this that made the little room so pink. The light refracted through the glass construction on the floor and produced a spectroscopic comet which they stood, neatly, on each side of. Lucinda duplicated his stance without meaning to; that is, she hugged herself, kept her arms locked firmly around her own body while she felt the space between them as if it were a living thing.
Ch 42 Called
The Odd Bod stood gazing across through the park, his white hands clasped upon his breast, a bemused smile on his face, waiting patiently for Wardley-Fish to set it right for him.
The thieving cabby wanted half a crown and Wardley-Fish was too irritated to argue. This stance of Oscar's looked so like a pose. He could not believe it was not, at least partly, a pose. And yet he could not doubt the Odd Bod's integrity, or not for long. For he had seen him, on more than one occasion, discard that portion of his racecourse winnings he regarded as surplus to his needs, shove blue five-pound notes into some parish poor-box because he had enough for himself for the present. His jerky charity did not stop there, for there was a red-nosed clergyman from his own village who was also a recipient of bulging registered envelopes of currency which, from all that Wardley-Fish could judge, produced many emotions in the donee, but none of them having much resemblance to gratitude.
Oscar's holy profligacy infuriated Wardley-Fish, and yet it was exactly these acts of charity that he most treasured in his friend, and he could never make his mind be still about the question, which was like one of those trick drawings in Punch which have the contradiction built in so that what seems to be a spire one moment is a deep shaft the next. He took his friend by his shiny, threadbare elbow and propelled him before him, past the porter, into Cremorne Gardens. It was five o'clock in the afternoon, an hour at which the tide, so to speak, was already turning, and the clientele, having been for the most part respectable during the day, now seemed to transmogrify-the guard changed within the space of thirty minutes-into something more glamorous and dangerous.
Ch 57 Confession
When she found Mr Hopkins standing in her doorway, the first thing she thought, when thought came, was-the cards. She had laid them as a bait, but not for him, for anyone but him. But there was a moment, before this, when she did not think at all. Her mouth echoed the open door.
And then she thought: The cards. He must not see the cards, or money either. There were coins and notes, a fiver as purple as a bishop's vest-it was such a luminous colour, like flowering lasiandra, signalling invitations to stumble-footed insects which would help it mate without knowing what they did. All this was calculated to catch the eye, but not this eye, another one.
She thought: What a dear face. The extreme delicacy and refinement of the face impressed itself on her. She did not, not yet, question the propriety of this visit, unchaperoned to her room; that would come in a moment, and with it anxiety, like a draught of hot whisky. She had completely forgotten her request for confession. She saw only the very pleasant man she had feared driven away by her forwardness.
"Do come in." These were the only words that either of them spoke. She tried to lead him into the curved corner of the stateroom, further from the game of poker. She thought to point out the luminescent sea. She knew herself favoured with 'landscape windows" and thought to make a conversation of the fact. But he literally turned his back upon them, and moved like a crab in the opposite direction, finding his way into a chair like a blind man, at the very table she did not wish him to sit.
She was aghast, too much in terror about having her vice discovered
to think his behaviour peculiar. She noticed perspiration on his brow, but it did not come to her mind until much later, when the incident was over.
She thought it odd he did not excuse himself for sitting while she stayed standing. "You must excuse me," he said instead, "for not corning earlier."
When Oscar tried to think good thoughts he always thought of his father. He did this now: it was this that made him groan – the loneliness he had caused this stern and loving man.
The voices of the stewards came through the ventilation, but neither of them listened.
Still, the priest withheld absolution.
"This dice you played on the train," he asked, "was it Dutch Hazards?"
Lucinda looked up quite sharply, but the priest's head was bowed and twisted sideways towards his right shoulder. "Yes," she said. "It was. We also played another game."
"Old British, perhaps."
Lucinda felt her bowed neck assume a mottled pattern. "In New South Wales," she said, "it is known as 'Seventh Man.' "
Her feelings were not focused, were as diffused as a blush, a business of heat and blood.
Oscar could not keep the picture of his father clear. A certain reckless joy – a thing without a definite form, a fog, a cloud of electricity – replaced the homely holy thoughts.
"And who was it," he asked, unclenching his hands and bringing them up on to the table, "who provided the Peter?"
Lucinda Leplastrier put her head on one side. She opened her eyes. Her confessor had a blank face, what was almost a blank face, but was prevented from being completely blank by the very slight compression of the lips.
Lucinda narrowed her green eyes. "The Peter?" 'Is the term unknown to you?"
She was looking at the mouth. She could not quite believe what she saw there. "No," she said, very carefully. "No, I think it is quite familiar."
"I thought so," said Oscar Hopkins. He closed the little prayer book and stuffed it in the pocket which contained the caul. When his hand touched the caul, he remembered the ocean behind his book. It caused no more than a prickling in his spine.
"And these terms, Mr Hopkins, are they also familiar to you?"
"Afraid so." He smiled, a clear and brilliant smile.
Lucinda also smiled, but less certainly. "Mr Hopkins, this is most improper." Oscar took a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wiped first his clammy hands and then his perspiring brow. "Oh?" he said, "I really do not think so." He looked so pleased with himself.
"But you have not absolved me."
"Where is the sin?"
She was shocked, less by what he said, but by the sudden change of mood that took possession of him. He spoke these words in an angry sort of passion quite foreign to his personality. His eyes went hard. He made a jerky gesture towards the cards-ha! he had seen them after all-in front of him. "Our whole faith is a wager, Miss Leplastrier. We bet – it is all in Pascal and very wise it is too, although the Queen of England might find him not nearly Presbyterian enough – we bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it. We calculate the odds, the return, that we shall sit with the saints in paradise. Our anxiety about our bet will wake us before dawn in a cold sweat. We are out of bed and on our knees, even in the midst of winter. And God sees us, and sees us suffer. And how can this God, a God who sees us at prayer beside our bed ..." His hands were quite jerky in their movements. There was a wild sort of passion about him, and the eyes within that sharpchinned face held the reflections of electric lamps. Lucinda felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Her eyelids came down. If she had been a cat she would have purred.
"I cannot see," he said, "that such a God, whose fundamental requirement of us is that we gamble our mortal souls, every second of our temporal existence ... It is true! We must gamble every instant of our allotted span. We must stake everything on the unprovable fact of His existence."
Lucinda shivered, a not unpleasant shiver and one not caused by cold. There were so many reasons for this involuntary ripple, not least the realization that her vice would not lose her his friendship. But it was also caused by recognition: she saw herself mirrored in him, the sudden coldness of the gambler's passion-something steely, angry even, which will not be denied. She was disturbed, too, to find her confessor belittling the worth of her confession and this-the pulling out of the tablecloth beneath the meal-gave a salt of anger to her own emotions even while she delighted-celebrated, even-the vital defence my great-grandfather was assembling, like a wild-haired angel clockmaker gesturing with little cogs, dangerous springs, holding out each part for verification, approbation, before he inserted it in the gleaming structure of his belief.
Ch 3 Christmas Pudding
On this Christmas Day, his father said: "You have reclassified your buttons, I see."
The buttons were on the window ledge. It was a deep sill. Mrs Williams had put the buttons there when she set the table.
Oscar said: "Yes, Father."
"The taxonomic principle being colour. The spectrum from left to right, with size the second principle of order."
"Very good," said Theophilus.
Oscar scraped his plate of stew clean. He finished his glass of water. He bowed his head with his father and thanked God for what He had provided. And when Mrs Williams came to the door and asked would he please help her add pollard to the pigs' swill, he went quickly, quietly, a light, pale, golden-haired boy. He thought about his buttons, not about what he was doing.
The two women stood side by side like two jugs on a shelf. One was big and floury, the other small and freckled, but their smiles were mirror images of each other and they held their hands in front of them, each clasped identically.
They had "It" on a plate. They had cut it into quarters and covered it with lovely custard. Mrs Williams pushed her hairbrush deeper into her pinny pocket and thrust the pudding at him. She moved the bowl through the air with such speed that the spoon was left behind and clattered on to the cobble floor.
Mrs Williams stopped, but Fanny Drabble hissed: "Leave alone." She kicked the fallen spoon away and gave Oscar a fresh one. She was suddenly nervous of discovery.
Oscar took the spoon and ate, standing up.
He could never have imagined such a lovely taste. He let it break apart, treasuring it inside his mouth.
He looked up and saw the two mirrored smiles increase. Fanny Drabble tucked her chin into her neck. He smiled too, almost sleepily, and he was just raising the spoon to his mouth in anticipation of more, had actually got the second spoonful into his mouth when the door squeaked behind him and Theophilus came striding across the cobbled floor.
He did not see this. He felt it. He felt the blow on the back of his head. His face leapt forward. The spoon hit his tooth. The spoon dropped to the floor. A large horny hand gripped the back of his head and another cupped beneath his mouth. He tried to swallow. There was a second blow. He spat what he could.
Theophilus acted as if his son were poisoned. He brought him to the scullery and made him drink salt water. He forced the glass hard against his mouth so it hurt. Oscar gagged and struggled. His father's eyes were wild. They did not see him. Oscar drank. He drank again. He drank until he vomited into the pigs' swill. When this was done, Theophilus threw what remained of the pudding into the fire.
Oscar had never been hit before. He could not bear it.
His father made a speech. Oscar did not believe it.
His father said the pudding was the fruit of Satan.
But Oscar had tasted the pudding. It did not taste like the fruit of Satan.