Australian film director and screenwriter Shirley Barrett has added an additional title to her resumé: author. Her debut novel, Rush Oh! (Little, Brown & Co., March 22), was just included on the longlist for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. With a ton of praise already pouring in for the book, we just couldn’t wait to get our hands on a copy and it did NOT disappoint. Before it releases, we’re thrilled to be able to offer the excerpt below. Do yourself a favor: when you finish the excerpt, pre-order your very own copy!
Our house was situated up the hill from the try- works, which meant not only were we enveloped in the stench of boiling blubber for five months of the year, but also that our garden must needs incorporate various vestiges of dead marine life. The jaws of a large white pointer shark, in which the children liked to pretend they were being eaten, formed an ornamental feature near the front gate, while the path leading up to the house was laid with the pulverized remains of whale vertebrae, creating an effect not unlike pebbles, although considerably sharper underfoot. The towering rib cage of a ninety-foot blue whale sat amidst a winter display of jonquils; my father had had the men haul it closer to the house that he might contemplate its grandeur while enjoying his evening pipe. In a bid to soften its stark appearance (and incidentally create a kind of pergola), I had attempted to train a wisteria over it; however the wisteria had never taken to the task and its gnarled tendrils did nothing to dispel, in fact seemed generally to enhance, the somewhat gloomy aspect of the mammal’s parched remains. Certainly they cast an impression upon the visitor now standing before them, for he issued a low whistling sound through his teeth and shook his head slowly.
Before proceeding further, I should pause to mention that at the time my sisters and I were slave to a great many “kitchen superstitions,” some of which we had learned from others, and many of which we had simply invented ourselves. For example, if when washing dishes a cup or a plate is overlooked, then that is a sign that you will soon hear tidings of a wedding. This particular superstition had failed us many times, but was later to come true in circumstances so close to home that we have persisted in believing in it, even in spite of the frequency with which we forget to wash things and the relative infrequency of hearing about weddings. Perhaps owing to our distance from the township of Eden, we had developed a whole series of superstitions regarding the impending arrival of visitors. If the kettle was accidentally placed on the fire with the spout facing backwards, then a stranger was coming to see us. If, after sweeping a room, the broom was left in a corner, then the sweeper would shortly meet her true love. Of course, as can be imagined, this led to a greater interest in sweeping and a good deal of leaving brooms about in corners, until we decided that the leaving of brooms had to be accidental or the effect was otherwise null and void. I convey this information simply for the purpose of setting the scene, for late that particular afternoon in June 1908, I had almost finished sweeping out the bedrooms when I glimpsed from the window the visitor gazing solemnly at the rib bones as I have just described. Throwing off my apron, I hurried out to the veranda, and in doing so, I left the broom in the corner of that bedroom.
“Good afternoon,” the visitor called out to me. “I’m looking for George Davidson.”
“He’s in town,” I responded. “He should be back before sundown.”
“I hear he’s putting together crews for his whaleboats,” said the stranger, stooping to pluck a jonquil, which he proceeded to place in his buttonhole. (The jonquil display had been an- other of my attempts at “softening” the rib cage, yet in truth the effect was not entirely harmonious.) “Does he need another, do you know?”
“He does,” responded my younger brother Dan, who had joined me on the veranda. “Tell me, can you row hard?”
“Have you chased a whale before?”
“I’ve not,” confessed the stranger, strolling up the path to- wards us, whale bones crunching underfoot. “But I can fish.”
“They’re bigger than fish.” “Much bigger?”
“Oh yes, quite considerably. Have you never seen a whale up close before?”
“Well then, you’re in for quite a surprise.” Dan took an old clay pipe from his pocket now, and tapped at it thought- fully. “Mary, perhaps if you showed our visitor your artwork, it might convey more clearly some sense of their dimensions?”
At this, the stranger turned to me, and his face broke into a broad grin. I’m not sure what prompted this; perhaps Dan’s lofty manner amused him (Dan was a small boy and looked younger than his twelve years).
“You sketch?” inquired the stranger.
“Yes, somewhat; mainly whaling scenes,” I replied. My cheeks reddened. How dreary and bluestocking it seemed suddenly, to enjoy such a pastime. Nor was this impression helped by the fact that I was indeed wearing my blue stockings.
“One of Mary’s depictions received a Highly Commended at the Eden Show just past,” said Dan stoutly. “Go and fetch it, Mary,” he encouraged, giving me a shove.
Although I am not usually one to put myself forward, I did as I was bid, for I felt an urge to cast an interesting impression of myself upon this gentleman. When I returned, I saw that Dan had perhaps been affected by a similar impulse, for he was now engaged in the act of demonstrating to the stranger the action of my father’s whale gun. Dan had been expressly forbidden to so much as touch the whale gun since he and one of the Aboriginal children had used it for shooting minnows in the creek and only with the greatest good fortune avoided blowing away their own legs. Calmly I wrenched it from his grasp and placed it aside.
“My father rarely uses it,” I explained to the stranger. “It scares the Killers away. Besides, it has a powerful kick that can knock you clear out of the boat and into the water. Dan here tried it once and had a bruise the size of a dinner plate on his chest.”
“Show him your picture for God’s sake, Mary,” muttered Dan, having no wish for me to go into further details on the subject.
“Very well,” I replied.
“Stern All, Boys!” (which, as formerly mentioned, had received a Highly Commended in the Eden Show just past) depicts the moment when the whale receives the fatal lance and lashes the water in its death flurry. My father, the headsman, is standing at the bow of the boat applying the lance, and it is he who is calling out for the men to row hard astern in a bid to escape the fury of the tormented monster. You can see from the position of the whale’s enormous flukes that its tail will crash down upon the boat at any moment. It is spouting blood; also, there is a fountain of blood issuing from the point where the lance enters the whale’s vitals, spraying over the men and giving them a most ghoulish appearance. One of the striking features of the painting is the look of abject terror on the faces of the crew, with the exception of my father, who is known locally by the sobriquet of “Fearless.” My brother Harry is the most terrified of them all. He is gazing up beseechingly at the giant fl es and wringing his hands like a girl (in fact, he was quite annoyed with me about this representation, and the subject was to remain a sore point between us). Amidst the commotion, one of the men has fallen into the sea and is in the throes of drowning, while another is depicted struggling valiantly for life in the grip of the whale’s mighty jaws. Meanwhile, in the water circling the thrashing leviathan, are the Killer whales Tom, Hooky, Humpy, Typee, Jackson, Charlie Adgery and Kinscher—each of them identifiable by the distinguishing characteristics of their dorsal fin. Hooky is pushing at the whale from below to ensure it does not sound. Tom is jumping across the creature’s blowhole. Jackson is endeavoring to force open the jaws of the whale in a bid to tear out a portion of its tongue, while Humpy looks on approvingly.
All in all, it is quite a dramatic representation, and a great favorite with the children. Some considered it ought to have been awarded first prize; however, for reasons of their own which remain mysterious, the judges deemed otherwise. Admittedly, there were some small inaccuracies (the whale I have depicted started off as a humpback but, after some difficulty rendering the head, it ended up as a sperm whale; truth be told, however, sperm whales have never been sighted in Twofold Bay). It was rumored that the judges may have found the painting too gruesome—if this was the case, then I consider it curious, as I know that one of these judges was to be seen on the cliff tops cheering heartily whenever such a scene unfolded in real life. In truth, I suspect that the real reason “Stern All, Boys!” was deemed unworthy of a prize is that the subject matter was considered unsuitable for a young lady. Far better that I had employed my talents depicting three cows in a paddock at sunset, as did Miss Eunice Martin of Towamba, for which effort she received the coveted blue ribbon.
“Whales eat folk?” asked the stranger finally. He had been gazing steadily at the painting for some moments.
“Not commonly,” I replied. “I have embellished a few small details.”
“There’s nothing to say a sperm whale wouldn’t eat a man,” said Dan. “Didn’t Moby Dick eat Ahab?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember,” I said. “He may have done.”
“Well, in any case, there’s nothing to stop a fellow from falling into a whale’s mouth,” said Dan. “The whale may be just about to spit him out as so much gristle.”
The stranger continued to study the painting in silence. I could see his brows knit and the muscles of his jaw tighten, and for a long time he gazed at it and said nothing. Evidently it was the first time he had seen whaling depicted in detail, and given that he had just volunteered for the job, perhaps he was experiencing misgivings.
“There’s a lot of blood,” he said finally. “Perhaps you could have shown less of it.”
I stiffened. A surge of indignation rose up within me. “Forgive me, but I felt it my responsibility to deliver an accurate pictorial representation. There is a lot of blood. Isn’t there, Dan?”
“Oh yes,” agreed Dan. “Whaling’s not for the queasy.”
“I never said I was queasy,” said the visitor, seemingly slightly annoyed at the implication. “I just said how there’s a deal of blood.”
“Then perhaps you would prefer I confine my pictorial efforts to pastoral settings,” I responded. “A cow or two in a paddock—would that be a more suitable subject for a young lady?”
“Leave it, Mary,” said Dan.
“Never mind that one of Miss Martin’s cows seemed for all the world to have five legs! I’ve never heard of a five-legged cow, have you?”
“There was a calf born in Bega with five legs,” said Dan. “That story was completely apocryphal!”
Just at that moment, our youngest sisters Annie and Violet cried out from the bottom of the garden—my father’s motor launch, Excelsior, had rounded the headland and could be seen approaching. They galloped down to the jetty to meet him, followed by our dogs hot on their heels, anxious to convey the impression that they had remained vigilant and not spent the entire afternoon dozing in the sun. Forgetting his worldly manner, Dan stashed his pipe in his pocket and took off down to the jetty also. My father had been into Eden to pick up stores, and there was always the chance that he had thought to include some small confectionery or trifle.
“Well, sir,” I ventured at last, turning to the stranger. “Are you still up for adventure, or has my painting put you off?”
“No,” he said. “I mean, yes. In truth, it has scared the bejesus out of me.”
A wave of alarm overtook me. I may not have yet mentioned that our visitor was remarkably handsome, and whalers as a rule were not celebrated for their good looks.
“Oh no, you mustn’t let my picture deter you,” I entreated. “Whaling is generally considered no more dangerous than fishing, albeit whales are larger than fish.”
“Yes,” he replied. “I think I am clear on that point now.” “Also, to be perfectly honest, we don’t catch that many whales,” I continued. “Oh, enough to get by certainly, and make a decent—well, a living of sorts, but.. .” Here I trailed off, for he glanced at me curiously. “The truth is, sir, my father could certainly use an extra hand at the oars.”
I gazed at him imploringly and hoped that my spectacles were sitting straight. So often they sat askew, which gave me the appearance of a character in a musical comedy.
“This comment I made regarding the amount of blood,” he said. “That was unwarranted. Forgive me.”
“There’s no need,” I replied, surprised and, in truth, greatly pleased. “Your comment was perfectly understandable. However, I think you’ll soon find that there is a lot of blood, perhaps more than one would reasonably expect.”
“Yes,” murmured the stranger, gazing off. “That is so often the case.”
He fell silent now, apparently absorbed in his own thoughts. I strained to think of some additional remark that would assist my cause but could think of nothing, so instead stood sucking my lower lip between my teeth, a habit of mine when nervous. The dogs were barking furiously as my father maneuvered the Excelsior alongside the jetty; my brother Harry, at the bow of the vessel, tossed the rope to Dan, who jumped at it eagerly and missed. It ended up in the water. Harry pulled it out again, cursing Dan freely.
“Well, then,” said the stranger at last. “Here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.”
And with that, he smiled at me, tipped his cap and strolled off down the hill to meet my father.
I stood for a moment and watched him go, then turned and hurried back inside. An odd feeling of distraction overcame me: I proceeded to sweep again with great thoroughness several rooms I had previously swept.
A Minister of the Methodist Church
Given the shortage of whale men after the misfortunes of last season, my father was pleased to make the acquaintance of John Beck (for that was the name of our visitor).
“And what kind of experience have you had?” he asked, after the initial introductions.
“Well, sir, up until recent times I was a minister of the Methodist church,” John Beck replied. At this, the children stared and Harry embarked upon a series of snorting sounds (my brother had a problem with his adenoids). My father silenced him at once with a look.
“That is well and good,” said my father, turning back to John Beck. “But what kind of experience as regards whaling?”
“Ah,” said John Beck. “None, to be exact.”
At this, both men gazed down sadly at the wooden boards of our jetty.
“It’s a bad thing we lost Burrows,” said Uncle Aleck that evening, as we sat around the kitchen table. “He was a good man when sober, and a fine oarsman. What makes you think this clergyman can row?”
“If he can’t, then he’ll learn soon enough,” said my father. “Perhaps he will row for Jesus,” offered Dan, who was at the time a Junior Soldier with the Salvation Army. They would sometimes visit in a bid to minister to our Aboriginal whale men, but had so far only succeeded in recruiting Dan to their ranks. The Aborigines enjoyed the hymn singing, but that was about it.
“Also, Dad,” said Harry, “I bumped into Robert Heffernan in town today and he mentioned to me that he would be very keen for you to consider him, if you are still short of oarsmen.” At this, my father turned and gazed suspiciously at my sister Louisa, but she continued to eat, paying no attention to the conversation around her. (I have not mentioned Louisa in detail yet, but I will get to her soon enough.)
“Well,” he said. “I may have to at that, if we’re to run two boats.”
“God help us, George, two new chums and one an ex- clergyman!” cried Uncle Aleck. “You’ll sink like a stone out there.”