The Complete Short Stories

BOOK: The Complete Short Stories
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The Complete Short Stories

 

MURIEL SPARK

 

 

Contents

The Go-Away Bird
.
3

The Curtain Blown by the Breeze
.
35

Bang-Bang You’re Dead
.
44

The Seraph and the Zambezi
63

The Pawnbroker’s Wife
.
68

The Snobs
.
77

A Member of the Family
.
82

The Fortune-Teller
92

The Fathers’ Daughters
.
99

Open to the Public
.
107

The Dragon
.
115

The Leaf Sweeper
121

Harper and Wilton
.
125

The Executor
130

Another Pair of Hands
.
135

The Girl I Left Behind Me
.
142

Miss Pinkerton’s Apocalypse
.
145

The Pearly Shadow
..
150

Going Up and Coming Down
.
155

You Should Have Seen the Mess
.
158

Quest for Lavishes Ghast
161

The Young Man Who Discovered the Secret of Life
.
164

Daisy Overend
.
166

The House of the Famous Poet
172

The Playhouse Called Remarkable
.
178

Chimes
.
185

Ladies and Gentlemen
.
189

Come Along, Marjorie
.
195

The Twins
.
203

‘A Sad Tale’s Best for Winter’
210

Christmas Fugue
.
215

The First Year of My Life
.
221

The Gentile Jewesses
.
225

Alice Long’s Dachshunds
.
229

The Dark Glasses
.
237

The Ormolu Clock
.
247

The Portobello Road
.
253

The Black Madonna
.
269

The Thing about Police Stations
.
282

A Hundred and Eleven Years Without a Chauffeur
285

The Hanging Judge
.
289

 

 

 

The Go-Away Bird

 

 

1

 

All over the Colony it was possible to hear
the subtle voice of the grey-crested lourie, commonly known as the go-away bird
by its call, ‘go’way, go’way’. It was possible to hear the bird, but very few
did, for it was part of the background to everything, a choir of birds and
beasts, the crackle of vegetation in the great prevalent sunlight, and the soft
rhythmic pad of natives, as they went barefoot and in single-file, from kraal
to kraal.

Out shooting with her
uncle and her young friends, happy under her wide-brimmed hat, Daphne du Toit
would sometimes hear the go-away bird. Sometimes, during the school holidays,
her aunt and uncle would have the young neighbours over from farms thirty miles
distant. They would scrounge a lift into the nearest township — ‘the dorp’ they
called it, for it was no more than a sandy main street in a valley, frequently
cut off in the rainy season, when the rivers would swell above the bridges.

As they rumbled down the
hill in the Ford V8 the uneven line of corrugated iron roofs would rise to meet
them, and presently the car would stop outside the post office which was also
the headquarters of the Native Commissioner. They would spill out to receive
calls and glances of recognition from the white population. Natives would
appear from nowhere to group themselves a few yards from the car, grinning with
a kind of interest. They would amble past the general European store, two or
three native stores and a dozen haphazard houses with voices of women scolding
their servants rising from behind the torn mosquito-wire around the dark
stoeps. Though it was a British colony, most of the people who lived in the
dorp and its vicinity were Afrikaners, or Dutch as they were simply called.
Daphne’s father had been Dutch, but her mother had been a Patterson from
England, and since their death she had lived with her mother’s relations, the
Chakata Pattersons, who understood, but preferred not to speak Afrikaans.
Chakata was sixty, he had been very much older than Daphne’s mother, and his
own children were married, were farming in other colonies. Chakata nourished a
passionate love for the natives. No one had called him James for thirty-odd
years; he went by the natives’ name for him, Chakata. He loved the natives as
much as he hated the Dutch.

Daphne had come into his
household when she was six, both parents then being dead. That year Chakata was
awarded an ORE for his model native villages. Daphne remembered the great
creaky motor-vans and horse-drawn, sometimes ox-drawn, covered wagons pouring
into the farm from far distances, thirty miles or five hundred miles away,
neighbours come to congratulate Chakata. The empty bottles piled up in the
yard. The native boys ran about all day to attend to the guests, some of whom
slept in the house, most of whom bedded down in their wagons. Some were Dutch,
and these, when they dismounted from their wagons, would kneel to thank God for
a safe arrival. They would then shout their orders to their servants and go to
greet Old Tuys who had come out to welcome them. Chakata always fell back a
little behind Old Tuys when Dutch visitors came to the farm. This was out of
courtesy and tact for Old Tuys, the tobacco manager on Chakata’s farm who was
Dutch, and Chakata felt that these Afrikaners would want to linger first with
him, and exchange something sociable in Afrikaans. As for Chakata, although he
spoke at least twenty native dialects, he would no more think of speaking
Afrikaans than he would think of speaking French. The Dutch visitors would have
to congratulate Chakata on his OBE in the English tongue, however poorly
managed, if they really wished to show they meant him well. Everyone knew that
Old Tuys was a constant irritant to Chakata, addressing him usually in Dutch,
to which Chakata invariably replied in English.

During those weeks
following Chakata’s return from Government House with the Order, when he kept
open house, Daphne would loiter around the farmhouse, waiting for the arrival
of the cars and wagons, in the hope that they might bring a child for her to
play with. Her only playmate was the cook’s piccanin, Moses, a year older than
Daphne, but frequently he was called away to draw water, sweep the yard, or
fetch wood. He would trot across the yard with a pile of wood pressed against
his chest and rising up to his eyes, clutching it officiously in his black arms
which themselves resembled the faggots he bore. When Daphne scampered after
Moses to the well or the wood-pile one of the older natives would interfere. ‘No,
Missy Daphne, you do no piccanin’s work. You go make play.’ She would wander
off barefoot to the paddock beyond the guava bushes, or to the verging
plantation of oranges, anywhere except the tobacco sheds, for there she might
bump into Old Tuys who would then stop what he was doing, stand straight and,
folding his arms, look at her with his blue eyes and sandy face. She would
stare at him for a frightened moment and then run for it.

Once when she had been
following a dry river-bed which cut through Chakata’s land she nearly trod on a
snake, and screaming, ran blindly to the nearest farm buildings, the tobacco
sheds. Round the corner of one of the sheds came Old Tuys, and in her panic and
relief at seeing a human face, Daphne ran up to him. ‘A snake! There’s a snake
down the river-bed!’ He straightened up, folded his arms, and looked at her
until she turned and ran from him, too.

Old Tuys was not yet
sixty. He had been called Young Tuys until his wife was known definitely to
have committed adultery, not once, but a number of times. After her death it
was at first a matter of some surprise among the farmers that Old Tuys did not
leave Chakata’s, for with his sound health and experience of tobacco, he could
have been anyone’s manager in or beyond the Colony. But word got round why Tuys
remained with Chakata, and the subject was no more mentioned, save as passed on
from fathers to sons, mothers to daughters, like the local genealogies, the
infallible methods of shooting to kill, and the facts of life.

Daphne was only half
conscious of the go-away bird, even while she heard it, during the first twelve
years of her life. In fact she learnt about it at school during Natural
History, and immediately recognized the fact that she had been hearing this
bird calling all her life. She began to go out specially to hear it, and
staring into the dry river-bed, or brushing round the orange trees, she would
strain for its call; and sometimes at sundowner time, drinking her lemonade
between Chakata and his wife on the stoep, she would say, ‘Listen to the
go-away bird.’

‘No,’ said Chakata one
evening, ‘it’s too late. They aren’t about as late as this.’

‘It
was
the Bird,’
she said, for it had assumed for her sufficient importance to be called simply
this, like the biblical Dove, or the zodiacal Ram.

‘Look yere, Daphne, ma
girl,’ said Mrs Chakata, between two loud sucks of whisky and water, ‘chuck up
this conversation about the blerry bird. If that’s all they teach you at the
blerry boarding-school—’

‘It’s Natural History,’
Chakata put in. ‘It’s a very good thing that she’s interested in the wild life
around us.’

Mrs Chakata had been
born in the Colony. She spoke English with the African Dutch accent, although
her extraction was English. Some said, however, that there was a touch of
colour, but this was not sufficiently proved by her crinkled brown skin: many
women in the Colony were shrivelled in complexion, though they were never
hatless, nor for long in the sun. It was partly the dry atmosphere of the long
hot season and partly the continual whisky drinking that dried most of them up.
Mrs Chakata spent nearly all day in her kimono dressing-gown lying on the bed,
smoking to ease the pains in her limbs the nature of which no doctor had yet
been able to diagnose over a period of six years.

Since ever Daphne could
remember, when Mrs Chakata lay on her bed in the daytime she had a revolver on
a table by her side. And sometimes, when Chakata had to spend days and nights
away from the farm, Daphne had slept in Mrs Chakata’s room, while outside the
bedroom door, on a makeshift pallet, lay Ticky Talbot, the freckled Englishman
who trained Chakata’s racers. He lay with a gun by his side, treating it all as
rather a joke.

From time to time Daphne
had inquired the reasons for these precautions. ‘You can’t trust the munts,’
said Mrs Chakata, using the local word for the natives. Daphne never understood
this, for Chakata’s men were the finest in the Colony, that was an axiom. She
vaguely thought it must be a surviving custom of general practice, dating from
the Pioneer days, when white men and women were frequently murdered in their
beds. This was within living history, and tales of these past massacres and
retributions were part of daily life in the great rural districts of the
Colony. But the old warrior chiefs were long since dead, and the warriors
disbanded, all differences now being settled by the Native Commissioners. As
she grew older Daphne thought Mrs Chakata and her kind very foolish to take
such elaborate precautions against something so remote as a native rising on
the farm. But it was not until the Coates family moved in to the neighbouring
farm thirty-five miles away that Daphne discovered Mrs Chakata’s precautionary
habits were not generally shared by the grown-up females of the Colony. Daphne
was twelve when the Coates family, which included two younger girls and two
older boys, came to the district. During the first school holidays after their
arrival she was invited over to stay with them. Mr Coates had gone on safari,
leaving his wife and children on the farm. The only other European there was a
young married student of agriculture who lived on their land two miles from the
farmhouse.

BOOK: The Complete Short Stories
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