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Authors: Kate Grenville

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The Secret River

BOOK: The Secret River
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Edinburgh • London • New York • Melbourne

This novel is dedicated to the Aboriginal people of Australia:
past, present and future

, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year. Now it had fetched up at the end of the earth. There was no lock on the door of the hut where William Thornhill, transported for the term of his natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six, was passing his first night in His Majesty’s penal colony of New South Wales. There was hardly a door, barely a wall: only a flap of bark, a screen of sticks and mud. There was no need of lock, of door, of wall: this was a prison whose bars were ten thousand miles of water.

Thornhill’s wife was sleeping sweet and peaceful against him, her hand still entwined in his. The child and the baby were asleep too, curled up together. Only Thornhill could not bring himself to close his eyes on this foreign darkness. Through the doorway of the hut he could feel the night, huge and damp, flowing in and bringing with it the sounds of its own life: tickings and creakings, small private rustlings, and beyond that the soughing of the forest, mile after mile.

When he got up and stepped out through the doorway there was no cry, no guard: only the living night. The air moved around him, full of rich dank smells. Trees stood tall over him. A breeze
shivered through the leaves, then died, and left only the vast fact of the forest.

He was nothing more than a flea on the side of some enormous quiet creature.

Down the hill the settlement was hidden by the darkness. A dog barked in a tired way and stopped. From the bay where the
was anchored there was a sense of restless water shifting in its bed of land and swelling up against the shore.

Above him in the sky was a thin moon and a scatter of stars as meaningless as spilt rice. There was no Pole Star, a friend to guide him on the Thames, no Bear that he had known all his life: only this blaze, unreadable, indifferent.

All the many months in the
, lying in the hammock which was all the territory he could claim in the world, listening to the sea slap against the side of the ship and trying to hear the voices of his own wife, his own children, in the noise from the women’s quarters, he had been comforted by telling over the bends of his own Thames. The Isle of Dogs, the deep eddying pool of Rotherhithe, the sudden twist of the sky as the river swung around the corner to Lambeth: they were all as intimate to him as breathing. Daniel Ellison grunted in his hammock beside him, fighting even in his sleep, the women were silent beyond their bulkhead, and still in the eye of his mind he rounded bend after bend of that river.

Now, standing in the great sighing lung of this other place and feeling the dirt chill under his feet, he knew that life was gone. He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him. This was a place, like death, from which men did not return. It was a sharp stab like a splinter under a nail: the pain of loss. He would die here under these alien stars, his bones rot in this cold earth.

He had not cried, not for thirty years, not since he was a hungry child too young to know that crying did not fill your belly.
But now his throat was thickening, a press of despair behind his eyes forcing warm tears down his cheeks.

There were things worse than dying: life had taught him that. Being here in New South Wales might be one of them.

It seemed at first to be the tears welling, the way the darkness moved in front of him. It took a moment to understand that the stirring was a human, as black as the air itself. His skin swallowed the light and made him not quite real, something only imagined. His eyes were set so deeply into the skull that they were invisible, each in its cave of bone. The rock of his face shaped itself around the big mouth, the imposing nose, the folds of his cheeks. Without surprise, as though he were dreaming, Thornhill saw the scars drawn on the man’s chest, each a neat line raised and twisted, living against the skin.

He took a step towards Thornhill so that the parched starlight from the sky fell on his shoulders. He wore his nakedness like a cloak. Upright in his hand, the spear was part of him, an extension of his arm.

Clothed as he was, Thornhill felt skinless as a maggot. The spear was tall and serious. To have evaded death at the end of the rope, only to go like this, his skin punctured and blood spilled beneath these chilly stars! And behind him, hardly hidden by that flap of bark, were those soft parcels of flesh: his wife and children.

Anger, that old familiar friend, came to his side.
Damn your eyes
be off
, he shouted.
Go to the devil!
After so long as a felon, hunched under the threat of the lash, he felt himself expanding back into his full size. His voice was rough, full of power, his anger a solid warmth inside him.

He took a threatening step forward. Could make out chips of sharp stone in the end of the spear. It would not go through a man neat as a needle. It would rip its way in. Pulling it out would rip all over again. The thought fanned his rage.
Be off!
Empty though it was, he raised his hand against the man.

The mouth of the black man began to move itself around sounds. As he spoke he gestured with the spear so it came and went in the darkness. They were close enough to touch.

In the fluid rush of speech Thornhill suddenly heard words.
Be off
, the man was shouting.
Be off!
It was his own tone exactly.

This was a kind of madness, as if a dog were to bark in English.

Be off, be off!
He was close enough now that he could see the man’s eyes catching the light under their heavy brows, and the straight angry line of his mouth. His own words had all dried up, but he stood his ground.

He had died once, in a manner of speaking. He could die again. He had been stripped of everything already: he had only the dirt under his bare feet, his small grip on this unknown place. He had nothing but that, and those helpless sleeping humans in the hut behind him. He was not about to surrender them to any naked black man.

In the silence between them the breeze rattled through the leaves. He glanced back at where his wife and infants lay, and when he looked again the man was gone. The darkness in front of him whispered and shifted, but there was only the forest. It could hide a hundred black men with spears, a thousand, a whole continent full of men with spears and that grim line to their mouths.

He went quickly into the hut, stumbling against the doorway so that clods of daubed mud fell away from the wall. The hut offered no safety, just the idea of it, but he dragged the flap of bark into place. He stretched himself out on the dirt alongside his family, forcing himself to lie still. But every muscle was tensed, anticipating the shock in his neck or his belly, his hand going to the place, the cold moment of finding that unforgiving thing in his flesh.

n the rooms where William Thornhill grew up, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, no one could move an elbow without hitting the wall or the table or a sister or a brother. Light struggled in through small panes of cracked glass and the soot from the smoking fireplace veiled the walls.

Where they lived, down close to the river, the alleyways were no more than a stride across, and dimmed even on the brightest day by the buildings packed in hugger-mugger. On every side it was nothing but brick walls and chimneys, cobblestones and mouldering planks where old whitewash marked the grain. There were the terraces of low-browed houses hunched down on themselves, growing out of the very dirt they sat on, and after them the tanneries, the shambles, the glue factories, the maltings, filling the air with their miasmas.

Down beyond the tanneries, turnips and beets struggled in damp sour fields, and between the fields, enclosed behind their hedges and walls, were the boggy places too wet to plant in, with rushes and reeds where stagnant water glinted.

The Thornhills all stole turnips from time to time, running the risk of the dogs getting them, or the farmer hurling stones. Big brother Matty bore a scar on his forehead where a stone
had made a turnip less tasty.

The highest things were the steeples. There was nowhere to go in all these mean and twisted streets, even out in the marshy low ground, where some steeple or other did not watch. As soon as one of them was hidden by the elbow of a lane there was another staring down from behind the chimneys.

And under the steeple, the House of God. William Thornhill’s life had begun, as far as his own memory of it was concerned, with the grandest house that God had: Christ Church beside the river. The building was so big it made his eyes water. On the gateposts there were snarling stone lions that his mother lifted him up to look at, but they made him cry out in fear. The vertiginous lawn seemed to engulf him as he stood in its emptiness. The bushes stood guard in a line, and tiny insects of humans laboured up the vast steps of the entrance far away. He was dizzy, lost, hot with panic.

Inside the church he had never seen such a vault of ceiling and such light. God had so much space it could frighten a boy from Tanner’s Lane. Up at the front were complicated carvings: screens, benches, a great construction that towered over the people sitting in the pews. It was a void into which his being expanded without finding a boundary, all in the merciless light that blasted down from the huge windows and left everything cold, with no kindly shadows anywhere. It was a place with no charity in its grey stones for a boy with the seat out of his britches.

He could not understand any of it, knew only that God was as foreign as a fish.


From the time he knew his own name,
William Thornhill
, it seemed that the world was crowded with other William Thornhills. For a start, there was always the ghost of the first William Thornhill, the brother who had died when only a week old. A year and a half
later, in 1777, a year with a bit of a ring to it, he himself had come into the world, and they gave him the same name. The first William Thornhill was a handful of dust in the ground, and he was warm flesh and blood, and yet the dead William Thornhill seemed the first, the true, and himself no more than a shadow.

Over the river in Labour-in-Vain Court, there were some distant cousins, and more William Thornhills. There was Old Mr Thornhill, a shrivelled little head nodding on top of some dark clothes. Then there was his son, Young William, a man altogether hidden behind black beard. At St Mary Mounthaw there was a William Thornhill who was a big boy of twelve and pinched the latest William Thornhill whenever he got the chance.

Then when the wife of Uncle Matthew the sea captain had a new baby, it was William Thornhill too. They visited with the baby and said its name, and everyone turned to him, smiling, expecting him to smile too, and he tried. But his sharp sister Mary, the oldest, saw his face fall. Later she punched him on the arm.
Your name is common as dirt, William Thornhill
, she said, and the anger rose up in him. He punched her straight back and shouted,
William Thornhills will fill up the whole world
, and she had no comeback to that, smart and all as she was.


His sister Lizzie, too young to hem sheets but old enough to carry a baby on her hip, had the care of the little ones. As a six-year-old she carried baby William to keep him from the mud, so that the smell of Lizzie, the coarse texture of her unruly hair coming out from under the cap, was more motherly to him than his mother.

He was always hungry. That was a fact of life: the gnawing feeling in his belly, the flat taste in his mouth, the rage that there was never enough. When the food came it was a matter of cramming it into his mouth so his hands could reach for more. If he was quick enough, he could grab the bread his little brother James was lifting
to his mouth, break a piece off and get it down his gullet. Once it was swallowed no one could get it back. But Matty was doing the same, ripping the bread out of William’s hand, his eyes gone small and hard like an animal’s.

And always cold. There was a kind of desperation to it, a fury to be warm. In the winter his feet were stones on the end of his legs. At night he and the others lay shivering on the mouldy straw, scratching at the fleas and the bedbugs, full of their blood, that nipped them through their rags.

He had eaten the bedbugs more than once.

There was one blanket for the two youngest Thornhills, and each other’s smelly bodies the best warmth. James was older by two years and got the best of the blanket, but William, though smaller, was canny. He forced himself not to sleep, waiting for James’s snores, so he could pull most of it over himself.

You were forever hungry
, his mother told him when he asked about himself, but had to stop for her cough, an explosion that ripped through her body. It sometimes seemed as though her cough was the only strong thing left in her.
Greedy little bugger you
, she whispered at last, and he went away ashamed, hearing his empty belly rumbling even then, and something in him going stony from the dislike in her voice.

Lizzie’s story was the same, but different.
, she cried,
word you was, Will, and look at you now, great lumps of boys don’t come out
of thin air

Her voice did not say that being such a great lump of boy was a bad thing to be, and when she said,
Hollow legs, we called you
, she said it with a smile.

Lizzie was a good sister for a baby to have, good with a sugar rag, strong at carrying. But when William was not yet three, the mother grew big and fretful, and another baby replaced him as the youngest, the one that Lizzie carried around on her hip. William, already haunted by the dead William Thornhill he had
replaced, was now haunted by this other brother, John. It seemed he would forever be squeezed tight before and after.

Below him was John, and on top of him were Lizzie and James, the biggest brother Matty, and Mary, oldest of them all, scary with her shouting voice always scolding. She sat with the mother, crowding in around the little window sewing the shrouds for Gilling’s. Then there was Robert, older than William but younger too. Poor Robert never had more than half his wits, and less than that of his hearing, after he had the fever when he was five and nearly died. William had heard his mother scream one day,
Better if you had died and been done with it!
It made him go cold inside, for poor Rob was a kindly boy, and when his face lit up at some little gift, he could not wish him dead.

Pa worked at the cotton mill, the maltings, the tanneries, nowhere for very long. His cheeks were hollow with points of red on them as if he were angry, and he crept about half asleep, always weary. When he spoke or laughed, the words or the mirth became a long wet rattling cough.
was how he had described himself at John’s baptism, but victualler meant nothing grander than a few gloomy men from Mr Choubert’s tannery, gathered together in one of the Thornhills’ two rooms, drinking ale out of dirty wooden tankards and eating pies the mother had made: too much pastry, not enough filling. When the tan-pits froze over in the winter there were no customers and the room was bleak, smelling of old ale in the floorboards and the cold chalkiness of ash in the fireplace.

Then it was lean times for the Thornhills. At five, William was old enough to go with Pa round the streets at dawn with a stick and a sack, gathering the pure for the morocco works. Pa carried the sack, young William was the one with the stick. Pa walked ahead, spotting the dark curl of a dog turd from his greater height. If none could be found, then there was nothing but brown water from the river as a belly-filler. But when Pa saw one, it was
the boy’s job to push it into the sack with the stick, trying not to breathe in the stink. The worst was when the dogs chose the cobbles at Tyer’s Gate with the wide gaps between, so the stuff dropped into the gaps and he had to gouge at it with the stick, or even with his fingernails while Pa stood coughing and pointing.

A full sack of pure was worth ninepence at the morocco yard. He had never asked what they used it for, only felt he would rather die than go on scraping the stuff off the cobbles of Southwark.

Except that the ache in his belly was even worse than the stink of the shit.

Ma was willing to risk less smelly ways to buy a loaf of bread. They watched her one day from behind a cart, William and Lizzie and James. Thornhill thought she looked obvious, lurking and slinking and tight-faced. Hold your head up, Ma, he wanted to call. And smile!

They saw her approach the trestle of books. The bookseller was inside her shop and it was hard to see if she was watching. William wanted to run across the road and lift the book himself, she was taking so long and looking so black about it, fingering the books and flipping their pages when she knew no more of her letters than the man in the moon. Then at last she slipped one into a fold of her apron, but looked at it as she did it, and used both hands so she nearly dropped the baby: it was clumsily done.

Suddenly the shop woman was there beside her, shouting,
Now give me that, if you please, Missus
, and they heard Ma cry out, too shrill,
What! I have nothing of yours!
but clutching at the book in the folds of her apron so it gave her away. The shop woman, a stringy old boiler, jerked her arm so Ma fell down on her knees and the book fell and the baby too, rolling onto the cobbles and setting up an almighty roar.

The shop woman pounced on the book, and, while she was stooping for it, Ma from her knees gave her a clout across the back of the head. Old and all as she was, the woman was up in a trice
and hit Ma on the shoulders with the book—they could hear the thwack of it from across the street—all the time hanging onto her and yelling,
Thief! Thief!
Ma was up now, the baby under her arm, and she began to kick out the legs of the trestle and claw all the books till they lay in the mud.

This was the signal for the children behind the cart to rush over and grab at the scattered books. William got one in each hand, right under the woman’s feet, so she let go of Ma to grab them back, and when he stepped away, Ma ran and now the woman was spinning from one to the other in a dither. Two gentlemen stepped out of the Anchor to come to her assistance, but by then the Thornhills were gone like a lot of rats up the alley.

They got a book each. William’s was the best, red leather with gold lettering, good for a shilling at Lyle’s, no questions asked.


He grew up a fighter. By the time he was ten years old the other boys knew to leave him alone. The rage warmed him and filled him up. It was a kind of friend.

There were other friends, of course, a band of boys who roamed the streets and wharves together, snatching cockles off the fishmonger’s stall at Borough Market, scrabbling in the mud at low tide for pennies tossed by laughing gentlemen.

There was his brother James, a whippy boy who could climb a drainpipe quicker than a roach, and poor simple Rob smiling at everything he saw. There was bony little William Warner, the runt of a litter on Halfpenny Lane, and Dan Oldfield whose father had drowned, being the passenger in a wherry trying to shoot London Bridge at low water, the boatman half-stupefied with liquor at the time. Dan was famous for his ability to steal roast chestnuts from the pedlar in Frying Pan Alley, enough to be able to share them, hot out of his pocket, with the other urchins. One frozen morning at Dan’s suggestion he and William had pissed on their own feet:
the moment’s bliss was almost worth the grip of cold that came after. Then there was Collarbone from Ash Court with the red mark across half his face. Collarbone liked Lizzie.
She has skin like a
, he told Thornhill, wonderingly, and then, perhaps thinking of his own livid skin, blushed red to the roots of his hair.

They were all thieves, any time they got the chance. The dainty parson could shrill all he liked about sin, but there could be no sin in thieving if it meant a full belly.

Rob came to the other boys in their little rat-hole by Dirty Lane one day with a single boot that he had taken from where it hung outside a shop. He would have got the other too, he said, but the bootmaker saw him in a looking-glass. The man ran after him, and caught him, Rob said, but he was old, and the boy was able to get away. William hefted the boot in his hand and said,
But what is
it worth to you, Rob, just the one?
And Rob thought long, his face creased with the effort, then through his loose rubbery lips, on a spray of spittle, cried out,
I will sell it to a man with one leg! It is worth
ten shillings at least!
and it was as if he already had the money in his hand, his face fat with satisfaction at his scheme.


When Lizzie played mother to John, and then to baby Luke after that, Lizzie’s friend Sal from Swan Lane became sister to William. Sal was the only fruit of her mother’s womb. Had been a bonny baby, but she had cursed the womb as she left it, for every baby after her sickened and died within the month.

BOOK: The Secret River
11.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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