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Authors: Thea Astley

Girl with a Monkey

BOOK: Girl with a Monkey
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Allen & Unwin's House of Books aims to bring Australia's cultural and literary heritage to a broad audience by creating affordable print and ebook editions of the nation's most significant and enduring writers and their work. The fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry of generations of Australian writers that were published before the advent of ebooks will now be available to new readers, alongside a selection of more recently published books that had fallen out of circulation.

The House of Books is an eloquent collection of Australia's finest literary achievements.

Thea Astley was born in Brisbane in 1925 and studied at the University of Queensland. She taught in schools in Queensland and New South Wales, then at Macquarie University in Sydney between 1968 and 1980.

The author of fourteen novels, two novellas and two short-story collections, she won the Miles Franklin Award four times, for
The Well Dressed Explorer
(1962),
The Slow Natives
(1965),
The Acolyte
(1972) and
Drylands
(2000), which was also nominated for the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow was nominated for the 1997 Miles Franklin Award, and in 1989 she was awarded the Patrick White Award for services to Australian literature. In 1992 she became an Officer in the Order of Australia, and received a special award at the 2002 NSW Premier's Literary Awards for lifetime achievement. She died in 2004.

HOUSE
of
 BOOKS

THEA ASTLEY

Girl with a Monkey

This edition published by Allen & Unwin House of Books in 2012
First published by Angus and Roberston Ltd in 1958

Copyright © Thea Astley 1958

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian
Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.

Allen & Unwin
Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, London

83 Alexander Street
Crows Nest NSW 2065
Australia
Phone:     (61 2) 8425 0100
Email:      [email protected]
Web:        
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Cataloguing-in-Publication details are available from the National Library of Australia
www.trove.nla.gov.au

ISBN 978 1 74331 566 8 (pbk)
ISBN 978 1 74343 292 1 (ebook)

Contents

Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Chapter VI

Chapter VII

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX

Chapter X

I

August

I
T WAS
, perhaps, the light filtering slowly into that green aquarium that woke her, and set her soul struggling to the surface through the washings of shapeless ideas. The enormousness of this day, she thought, is poised knife-like above me, cutting north from south and hot from cold. Today I am twenty-two and loved neither here nor there. I am caught static in a complete island of twenty-four hours, between job and job, town and town where there is no one whose shadow will touch my own or whom I shall not unmake before night. But this is complete. This self with carbuncular leg held still below the hotel sheets and the isolation of underclothes across dark chairs and baggage piled by doors. There is only need to make the day move conventionally through meals and ticket-buyings and farewells; but withal the strange importance of performing these simplicities youngly and alone. Pastiche and pasquinade and passover were all words that slipped momentarily through her mind as she thrust the good leg outside the bed through the last shallows of sleep.

There were no windows in this tank of a room that lay, two-doored, as a lobby within the hotel's centre. Only fanlights set high in the bottle-coloured walls let in morning sounds from bed-rooms and bathrooms and a light oddly diffused by bank-clerks and travellers and teachers. That she should be sleeping and waking at the core of such drabness seemed most apt; to be so held in a still centre of egotism this last week of August in a stifling box of a room with her only possessions ramparted round her. Mercifully the blurred mirror gave back to her the thin face not really a year older because of the morning, and the hair dark, tangled, and already beaded damp along the brow. She untwisted the pipe-cleaners that caught up her hair into a dozen tiny buns, combed and parted it inaccurately, and put on once more the heavily plum-coloured dress. Through the southern fanlight a saxophone trapped in a private radio howled pitifully and close.

Pitifully and close and angry, as he had looked last night in the chiaroscuro of the airport terminal. Along the motor road beside the brilliantly lighted offices the traffic striped black and white, harsh and silent. They had chopped and hacked at little sentences between them, felling desperately the vine-entanglements of their friendship. And when he had said, “But you asked for this move, didn't you? You want to go”, she wondered why she could think of nothing other than a sullen, “It's no good.”

They had stopped before the hotel's narrow doorway with the suitcases between them, his face still angry but perplexed as well, incongruously wondering under the over-smart greased hair. I should not speak, she thought, and flood his eyes again with geminate rage, but must keep silent remembering old angers and threats still close enough to have an importance. “Don't play me around, Elsie, or I'll do you, sure as fate!” But laughing, both of them, not deadly earnest at a time like that, yet sensing beneath the laughter a perhaps or a might; and a resolution that she should play him skilfully if she ever wanted to find out. Trade wind rattled and scraped through the cotton-palms down the centre of the road; the door in front of them opened to stamp a yellow rectangle on the night and their startled faces. Elsie, quickly seizing her cases, slipped away from him in cowardly fashion.

The northern door of her room opened into a short passage which in turn led to the bathroom and stairs. It was barely seven. If she were to leave now to book her sleeper in the night mail, there would be far less chance of their meeting. That they should meet again, she suddenly resolved, must not happen. Either fear for herself or him and apprehension of her treatment of him shaped itself sunlight-clear.

It had been odd and unavoidable, this return for one day to the north. A week before she was not even aware of a disinclination to come back to this tropic
coastal town, flat, steaming and guarded by the long island five miles off shore. First there was a letter, a shapeless badge of illiteracy finding her out in her home, among the acid tongues and the greediness of eyes. Then, pinning her helpless as a butterfly, his voice across eight hundred miles, aggrieved and ungrammatical. Placing the receiver back on its hook, she knew that never could she suffer him as lover, though as lover she had promised herself. Behind the door near the telephone, the orange money-box hung, a repository of years of lost friends. Outside, where the trams jerked angrily across the points, lay an asphalt barren of feet that moved to her. The north would be as empty as the south, or if she offered herself to Harry, so full of him, everything else would be obscured. Within two days a transfer to a southern school was arranged, and late on the final evening of the August holidays she flew for the last time to the tropics to collect the books and suitcases that had been left behind.

Elsie moved from her door the delicate erection of chair and bags placed there the night before; moved them automatically as she had moved them hundreds of mornings in second-rate hotels whose doors never had lock or bolt; and then, feeling the throb in her leg, walked slowly to the bathroom. The brownish water ran lukewarm from the tap. A tiny bulb in the ceiling gave forth an anaemic incandescence hardly strong
enough to expose the grey boundary inside the bath. Sitting on the chair with her leg resting on the bath rim, she peeled back agonizedly the sticky gauze that was wrapped tightly about her right shin. The leg was still swollen, necrotic tissue black around an angry centre of pain, and while she bathed and dressed the carbuncle she noticed with impatient despair a fresh swelling a little above the first. It gave to her palpation the familiar sharpness of a boil at its beginning.

Below, the hotel was stirring to life in kitchen and bar. A rumble of empty kegs being rolled and stacked in thunderous proximity by the barman filled every corner of the downstairs hall and the dining-room where two plump maids were setting the bent porridge spoons and the butter dishes; it cowed the drooping plants in their dented brass pots and sent Elsie fleeing through the open front door into the morning.

River gasped and sucked lazily at sugar barges somewhere behind the broad street and shops, river that curled tightly in through the mangroves and on out past its artificial breakwater limb to the warm reef waters. Cootharinga, its ugly granite escarpments sharp with sun and shadow, threatened the sprawling acolyte at its foot. From the silent and empty footpaths haze curled up under the tin awnings, lifting with it some coolness from the day; and somehow, unreasonably, Elsie's spirits lifted wreathing roofwards, while her small face pointed in eagerness, her lips
parted curiously. So often vitality uncurbed sprang freshets in her eyes: Harry had said, “Don't look like that, Elsie. Didn't you see that man staring at you? If you looked at me like that I'd follow you for miles.” So would the flesh sing, and did this morning, on meeting the first warmth and the first light that opened back one knew not how many receptive petallings of soul. High up the mail-plane on its way to Cairns left its throbbing resonance hanging in the air. Mount Stuart printed its indigo triangle to the south.

Elsie could wring drama from tiny and solitary situations—perhaps too easily, for very often she would square the root of the matter to arrive at an answer. But now, as she hastened towards the station at the far end of the main street, she became totally absorbed with the danger of a meeting. Throughout the year Harry had been accustomed to cycle each day at this hour to the new council drainage scheme, which was located in the low-lying western suburbs. Walking swiftly, she passed the Chinese fruit stores, the town's only night club that had risen phoenix-like from the burnt-out ruins of North Coast Wool Packers, and the grubby hamburger shop where they had gone so often for a steak supper.

When she rounded the wide curve by the railway hotel a cyclist drew level and stopped. Her heart became a tiny bird of fear, but her fear was needless, for the man merely bent down to fasten his trouserclip.
Yet somehow she enjoyed her fright, and irrationally watched her anxiety sharpen to a self-induced panic to be back at the hotel as quickly as possible lest he should be waiting there, questioning and angry, before she might have time to achieve the conscienceless security of that dim green tank.

Ablaze with light, the giant curved galvanized-iron roof of the station almost blinded her as she came upon it past the cabbies hosing down their cars. A sexless shape slept heavily on a platform seat and fifty yards away a gangling boy unloaded milk-cans onto a trolley. When she reached the ticket-window she found it barred, and although she rapped impatiently for a while there was no response, so she went round to the door and gazed in upon the night-clerk, who was cupping a tea-mug beaded with steam in his hands. He stared at her with lack-lustre eyes, took two more gulps of tea, and wearily pulled a ledger across the table.

“I really shouldn't do it now,” he said after Elsie had explained what she wanted. “You really ought to come back at nine. Anyway, I can only give you a sleeper as far as Rocky. You'll have to change to first sitting there.” He grinned up at her, happy in his small disservice. Elsie, unaware, smiled back.

BOOK: Girl with a Monkey
7.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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