Authors: Patrick White
‘Don’t touch, don’t push, Eirinitsa.’ Aunt Cleone’s voice sounds perilously frail in this great room, empty in spite of its heavy groaning furniture. The skittering furniture which fills Cleonaki’s small
, her books, her photographs of brothers and sisters, and those of President Venizelos (signed) and the Archimandrite—all must be treated like invalids. Not this lumpish chest in the house which is to become mine, I can hit it if I like, and do. Hit. Hit. I must hit
—or burst out crying. Will the boy come and find me? I have never known boys.
Men have a different smell, even the younger ones like Giles, paddling his fingers in my neck. Would my neck be sharp enough to cut off the fingers if I closed on them? Dreamy fingers. This man leaning out from the wall ‘my husband Mr Bulpit’ has thick meaty fingers, smelling of tobacco leaves, and pockets in the face where a razor can hardly enter, or the dimple in a chin, dark at the centre like a navel, and the warrant officer’s arms glow like a butcher’s shop. The moustache, darker in a blond face, almost drops. He could have varnished his moustache before he left for the photograph. Or is it blood? There is nothing to fear, now he is dead. I am the live one, so hungry I could eat a plate of meat—
—stuff it in—bones and all. The wife and Mamma too busy talking money and woollen underclothes to notice. Only the boy will watch. Is he already watching? On this ugly chest a dry wishbone. Drag on this sticky knob and the drawer grinds, hits me in the breast. There is a snotty string spreading on the handkerchiefs, one of them used. Yes, I am watched. It is his room.
* * *
All the house, the garden, must belong to one or other of them. There was nothing they could possibly share, the girl knew as the rotten, ricketty steps allowed her access to her garden. It was hers, like the past, those memories of the Royal or National Garden, whichever way you look at it—nothing could destroy her. She must ferret out this boy if he would not face her, and make it clear.
Then she was looking up into the heart of this black tree, her face held flat like an empty plate and his boy’s face slanted above her from looking down empty-eyed into her other emptiness. There was no question of how they might fill the silence. The moment before it might have smashed to smithereens below, or dissolved in a stream of spittle from the tree into her mouth, instead the voice floated from out of the house light and girlish as nobody had heard, ‘Come away, Irene—Gilbert! Children? Something lovely for your tea…’
* * *
They were all three seated round the large black shiny table of a dining room you could tell was seldom used because so much was on display, dishes standing on their edges, silver for a wedding, a clock which had stopped between marble columns below a pediment (Greek in fact) the air unbreathed, cleaner than in any of the other dustier, used rooms, the two children heads bowed, the boy playing with cutlery the girl tracing the pattern (or was it her fate?) in a tea-dipped crochet doiley, ‘Madame’ Sklavos staring ahead with a smile of disbelief as they waited for their hostess to bring whatever she had for them.
Madame Sklavos sighed and still smiling her disbelieving smile suggested ‘I expect you miss Mother and Father, Gilbert.’
The boy grunted and raised a shoulder. Because it was only one of those questions they ask children, he did not bother to tell her Mother was dead.
The boy’s hair was as pale gold as she had been told, Madame Sklavos noticed. Blond men left her unmoved.
‘Don’t you think you ought to leave that doily alone, Eirene? You might unpick it.’
She spoke with distaste either for the ugly lace, her dark child, the blond boy, the situation in the dining room, or the whole of life stretching out of and away from the house on the precipice.
‘Doiley…’ Eirene muttered a new word.
She gave the flat mat a pat or slap. The cutlery on either side of it clattered alarmingly.
Their hostess saved the situation. ‘… Hope you like it!’ she half-panted, half-giggled from the kitchen. Forestalling the person her words hung in the dining room surrounded by a black line like what they say in a cartoon.
When Mrs Bulpit appeared she was wearing a pair of asbestos gloves halfway up her marzipan arms, her figure stooped out of proportion to the size and weight of the battered pie-dish she was carrying.
‘It’s salmon pie’ she told them, slapping the pie-dish on the sideboard and then seeming to wonder whether the hot aluminium had marked the varnish.
Madame Sklavos was more than ever disbelieving, her chin tilted in that way of hers. Eirene more interested, for something foreign, but Gil Horsfall, a man amongst so many women, gloomed and refused to show what he thought of salmon pies. Mrs Bulpit’s smile had got smeared in the kitchen. Parted from the not so heavy pie-dish she remained humped between the shoulders. There was a smear of sauce on the black dressmaker’s dummy bust. But she remained the optimist.
Eirene recognised the symptoms from having indulged in hope herself, and for the first time felt sympathetic towards her guardian-to-be; out of sympathy she would have liked to force some of the soft vertebrae in salmon loaf from tinned salmon past the greater predominant lump in her throat.
Mrs Bulpit seated herself and was making passes with her fork above her plate. ‘… husband’s favourite dish,’ she told. ‘Mind you, he liked his steak—a steak dinner—and meat for tea, if you gave it to ’im. Men must have their meat, wouldn’t you say Mrs Sklavos?’
Mamma quilted her mouth, her cheekbones had taken on a pinched look. The light had made them look blue. She was chilly.
Mrs Bulpit did not expect an answer, ‘That’s as it may be,’ she decided staring rather hard at her salmon loaf, as though she had seen something in it, before her fork dived and she was wrapping teeth and lips round a generous mouthful, sauce bubbling in beads at the crimson corners.
‘There’s nothing so nourishing as food,’ she said between swallows. ‘It doesn’t have to be sweet. Food is food. You’ll agree to that, Mrs Sklavos.’ She plucked a hankie from the bracelet of her wristlet watch and mopped at her pronouncement. ‘All those Hindu spices … and some foreigners cook in oil, pooh!… With us it’s always plain fare. You know where you are with the British.’
Thus encouraged the boy began shovelling in his salmon loaf. Why not? It wasn’t too bad, and he felt empty. He filled his mouth—fuller than he should have to show them, but no-one seemed to notice. He knew how ugly he must look. He swallowed, and after a bit lost interest, except in finishing his tea.
The Greek-Australian woman or whatever she was had laid her fork alongside her untouched food. ‘Don’t you fancy it, Madam?’ Mrs Bulpit found time to ask. Mrs Sklavos was a real pain, the boy could tell. The girl was messing around with her tea, only because someone would have gone for her if she hadn’t. She was holding her head on one side, like some governess, to show she was grateful for small mercies. However dark her face, the parting in her hair was white. He had never seen such a straight white parting. He wondered whether she did it herself, or her mother helped.
Just then she looked up. They were looking at each other. Her face sharpened, she was no Miss Adams trying to look grateful. She had probably done her own parting, and if she offered to do yours she would toss back the hair on either side flip flap, with a sharp-toothed comb before finding where the parting went, then dig in the teeth.
It was his eyes that surprised her. She had never looked into such pale eyes. They gave out nothing, like blind eyes, or old people with cataracts. Till they began shifting like shallow water, a thought or two scuttling through the shallows that he would rather have kept hidden from her, that he might have been afraid for her to know.
And wondering had made her less sharp.
The face was round when he had thought it pointed, the mouth lying soft and loose, like one of the brown skinned sea anemones when there isn’t a crab anywhere near.
She was making him lose control of his face, his eyes were watering, when he had never meant to let this girl get a hold of him.
It was ridiculous after all, she saw, in this ugly room, nothing to do with Mamma or Mrs Bulpit, or war, or death.
She might have had doughnuts inside her cheeks.
She would burst, she thought.
They were both bursting from deep inside them.
Mouths stretched, they could see each other’s teeth. Hers white and even, there was a gap in his and a dob of salmon loaf, would it fly out?
As they shrieked to tear their lungs.
A bomb might have gone off amongst all this dark furniture. Mrs Sklavos closed her eyes, her nerves couldn’t stand it, all they had been through.
‘Whatever’s so funny?’ Mrs Bulpit shouted when she had recovered from her alarm, and her teeth had settled back to normal. ‘I’m surprised at you, Gilbert. I always thought you was a gentleman.’
He had left his chair, and was rolling around on the floor, as if he had the stomach-ache.
Or poisoned by salmon loaf it crossed her mind. It made her laugh the harder.
Mamma said, ‘Stop, Eirene. You’re hysterical. At once.
She obeyed more or less, perhaps because she was a girl. Anyway, she settled into a more controlled, gradually spasmodic mewing, above the skewed doiley in front of her. Mrs Sklavos admires the lace. Mrs B explains the doileys have been dipped in tea. ‘Effective, aren’t they?’
Gilbert Horsfall continued rolling on the floor, bellowing a little longer, before returning to his chair with the black barley-sugar woodwork. He sneezed once or twice and wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
‘The idea!’ Mrs Bulpit said. She said children get out of hand when there is a war on, she said a joke was a joke
, and a bit more in that vein.
The children sat behind their eyelids. They might have been sulking, wondering how much they had given away to each other, if little ripples had not returned from time to time to their cheeks.
* * *
Mrs Bulpit had given up her own room to the mother and daughter. She wanted them to feel at home. She would sleep on the lounge, she said. Detecting a martyr, Mrs Sklavos did not protest. She was too exhausted anyway. After looking at herself in the dressing-table glass and stroking up her hair fiercely with extended fingers she took off her dress, prodded the bed, and got into it in her slip.
‘Aren’t we undressing properly?’
‘I’m too tired.’
The scene in the dining room was still jumping around inside Eirene. She felt she wanted to prowl a bit. The owner had left behind a scattering of hairpins, a dusting of face powder. She would have liked to open drawers and doors but Mamma might have opened her eyes.
Instead she prowled in her socked feet (Mamma had not taken off her stockings). She took off her dress, as Mamma had done. She looked very thin out of it, her upper arms, compared with plumped out woman’s flesh and her shoulder blades. In the glass the shoulder blades were looking as sharp as Aunt Cleone’s ivory paperknife marking the Lives of the Saints. The shoulder blades were unmarked. Nobody had bitten into them. She saw this woman in the naked dress, her back, her shoulders, covered with little red marks, like a rash, or rubber kisses. The woman either didn’t know, or didn’t care, as she waited for the long black car to pick her up. Black eyelids of the man. The woman folding her umbrella before getting inside.
‘Eirene, aren’t you coming to bed?’ Mamma frowned without opening her eyes.
It was already warm, but sagging, in the bed which had been the Bulpits’. They were still rolling like porpoises as you fitted yourself into a place beside Mamma. Would she want to touch? You could have plastered yourself against her side, deeper if she would have received you, if the warm wave of flesh you were expecting rolled towards you, its perfect darkness lapping around the little sleeping trout you were waiting to become. She did heave a little, to share with you a fleshy moistness, if not the perfect dark curve you were waiting to fit inside.
It was still only Geraldine Sklavos. Her rings hurt. Her suspender pimples. Why hadn’t she undressed? Was she waiting to jump up and leave? Were the Germans, or some other enemy going to arrive?
‘Oh dear,’ she sighed. ‘What a lumpy, uncomfortable bed.’
At least she reached down and started peeling off her stockings. And threw them out. Should you take off your socks?
‘Those creatures…’ She began slightly giggling.
‘What?’ Should you giggle in return?
‘Nothing. The bed. It needs—
Mamma was heaving like any Bulpit porpoise. It was too giggly to resist. You were bumping, cannoning off each other, like a couple of older girls with the giggles.
Mamma’s sinuses were giving trouble. ‘Oh dear, aren’t we awful!’ She sniffed, bumped and giggled.
If you had a hankie, you could have offered a hankie. If you put your arms, would this other, older girl bump you off? It was worth the try.
But they were off again. ‘Those asbestos gloves…’ the two friends were bumping more than ever.
When a stiffening set in. It was Mamma saying, ‘People can’t help what they look like, you must remember that, Eirene, and never laugh at physical peculiarities.’
‘But the gloves…’ you might have pointed out, if you had been simple, and Mamma knew you weren’t that, unless when it suited her to see you as a child.
‘We must sleep,’ her sinuses ordered angrily.
And turned her back, and was soon sighing and resisting, trying to free herself, it seemed, of enormous, sticky spider webs.
‘Oh no…’ she moaned, opening and closing, opening and closing, like a knife, you were glad you were on the wrong side.
Welll ssleep. She has a very bad congestion, Great Aunt Cleone said. But you can’t cup a little child’s body, there is no flesh to fill the vacuum. It is Ayia Anastasia who has spells to dissolve sickness. We must pray to the Saint, her black robe, her dark face, but remember, Eirinitsa, religion is not superstition. When you are older, the spirit will guide you—the
. You will realise the difference. Though Ayios Fanourios is useful—to find things we have lost—except we must bake him a
. It was fascinating. Great Aunt Cleone could not have boiled a potato let alone baked a
. So religion is easier than superstition for people like Cleonaki. She has the eyes of this great Italian actress and Saints. Your
aunt, people say. Papa says, ‘
’ he accepts the Panayia only when she becomes Greece and they torture her.