Authors: Patrick White
is a comfort floating through the seas and forests of dreams. Not Aunt Cleone, not Mamma, not even Papa will recognise this part of me if I float against them. What about him?
Gilbert Horsfall, asleep in that narrow bed, may understand, but spits out lumps of salmon loaf through the gaps in his large, boy’s teeth. Saw I knew too much, the dried-up wishbone, the maze of string in the handkerchief drawer. Stir up the handkerchiefs and the mouse squeaks for its little black secrets.
Or float together eye to eye seeing and knowing inside the bluish skin stretched across the moon.
* * *
The blue-grey light inside this room.
‘Ah no—it’s too early…’ The grey sheet rustling as you drag it closer.
‘But darling, I can’t sleep—on such an important day…’
Mamma almost never calls you ‘darling’. She has put on her dress. She sits down fitting her stockings to her legs. The suspender’s pimples snap as she fastens the stockings to her belt.
‘What important…?’ You can hear you are a little grizzling child tossing in the bed, you can’t help it.
Feet soft without shoes, she comes across and sits on the edge. The pale light from one window behind does not light her face. She is looking straight into your half-open eyes. You know your lids are gummy, lashes sticky with sleep. She is looking at everything ugly in her thick-skinned child.
The hand starts trying out what she has to say. ‘You must be sensible, darling, understand why I must go back. Be of use. I don’t think Papa would have married me if he had thought I was a
. Now he would want me to do this. To go back and nurse the sick. The wounded—to go back to Egypt. It’s all I can offer.’ Her hand becoming hard. ‘Do you see?’
Yes. She had her nursing diploma.
Wouldn’t want Mamma to stick a needle into my bottom when she is angry.
‘Yes.’ It sounds like ‘esss’—silly little baby teeth falling out on the sheet, it is what she wants.
‘I knew darling, you would see.’
She gets up, and goes back towards the window, her stockinged feet thumping across the gritty carpet, offering her face to the light from the window, Mamma no longer has the advantage.
‘When are you going?’
She has these lines down her face. Like the ventriloquist’s doll at the Zappeion.
‘Well, soon—at once—because they have offered me return passage in this boat. I can’t lose the opportunity, can I? To go back to where I am needed.’ The way she swallows on what she is saying.
‘Aunt Alison will come to fetch me—Take me to the boat. Alison will always be here—and kind Mrs Bulpit. You will not be alone.’ She is staring at the light as it was on the window, or the curve of a branch knocking on the glass—or nothing. ‘And soon we shall be together again.’
* * *
For the time being everyone seemed to have forgotten about her though Mrs Bulpit offered a bowl of what she called ‘porridge.’ It was as convenient to forget as it was to be forgotten. The house was buzzing with the thoughts and actions of those separately in it. As she went outside leaving Mamma to tissues and the bathroom, Mrs Bulpit was attacking the kitchen. Her gloves had changed from asbestos to rubber, her curls hidden in a scarf, the ears of which trembled as she scrubbed, poked, and sang. She had just finished
Two Sleepy People
, and was starting on
Red Sails in the Sunset
Light lay heavy—it made the paths look substantial where the concrete had not crumbled, tree trunks and the branches of trees had knotted like the muscles in men’s bodies. Wherever rust had broken out it glowered like blood in the act of drying.
At a moment when they least expected each other the boy came down into the yard. Perhaps for this reason the half-rotten terrible steps ahead threw him and the things in the half-empty case he was carrying rattled round inside it.
He was forced by the situation to grunt something about ‘… school…’
‘Mmh…?’ she answered.
‘When you commin?’ There was menace in his voice, forced on him by school or the light or Australia or something.
‘I haven’t been told,’ she replied with as much precision as she could muster.
She took a sideways look at the blond legs but could not face the pale blue eyes.
Though it wasn’t called for, she informed him, ‘My aunt—Mrs Lockhart—is coming for my mother.’
He muttered again, something about ‘Bruce and Kevin…’ to convey contempt, before turning his back. As he mounted the slope to reach the street he was grinding his soles into the concrete. His socks were down around his ankles. She knew enough to sense he was wearing them that way deliberately.
He had scarcely gone when she ran back quickly inside. Mrs Bulpit had started on
. It seemed quite natural that Mrs Bulpit and Mamma should be so irrelevant, not in control of the house. What she most feared, that Gilbert Horsfall might dispute her ownership, no longer troubled her. Certainly he was temporarily absent; but his presence would not have mattered now that she felt mastery was within her reach.
Skipping, almost, inside the room where he had spent the night, and which still had the smell of what she supposed was a boy’s sleep, she did not even bother to glance at the warrant-officer’s blown-up portrait. That too was irrelevant. She only slightly hesitated before approaching the chest-of-drawers with the dried-out wishbone of some large bird, goose or turkey, lying where she had noticed it the night before. With a confidence she would have found odious in anyone else, she hummed a little of the tune the woman was singing in the kitchen. She gave her imitation a tinny edge reaching a crescendo as she dragged on the sticky knob of that same upper drawer. Again it shot out and hit her where women don’t like to be hit. There she had the advantage even over Mamma, even over boys, who might hit but can’t hurt if you are strong. And she felt strong. She felt her thoughts were leaner than Gilbert Horsfall’s. Inside the drawer the same tangle of used string, the roughed up dirty handkerchief lying on top of the laundered ones. She held her breath then slid her hand under the clean handkerchiefs, where women hide the valuables Turks and brigands are looking for, and precious secrets like love letters. Some of the letters had made her feel guilty. The jewels she had slipped on her fingers and round her neck, her flesh growing inside them. She had felt silly finally.
Now, under Gilbert Horsfall’s handkerchiefs she came across the secret he had hidden. It was a jewel, rather a lumpy one, golden in colour, set in a brooch. Was it valuable? Had he stolen it? She shoved it back in its hiding place. She slammed the drawer. She might have reached the peak of power over this pale, threatening boy.
She did a few twirls in the centre of the room stretching out her plait as far as it would reach. Dropped the plait. Would it make her look foreign in Australia? It ought not to matter, now that she was strong—if she was. Mamma was leaving, the boy would return when school was out.
His used bed was still unmade. It looked very narrow against the wall. She shuffled towards and lay down on it raising her arms above her head in defiance of the bed’s rightful owner. The mattress was thin and hard. She whimpered slightly, before turning on her side, taking the shape Mamma had rejected the night before. She lay listening. Now that Mrs Bulpit had shut up, she could hear her own heart jumping round inside her like a caught fish. Otherwise silence. She had the day to fill. She did not fit in. She lay snuffling, whimpering, rubbing her cheek against the single cold pillow to warm them both.
* * *
Hid yourself most of the day. Mamma did not call or come to look. If Mrs Bulpit called she soon gave up, too intent on all she suffered: ‘… from morning to night—in Australia, madam.’ For the benefit of anyone interested, she announced, ‘We only ever serve a light lunch.’ She might have been talking to the air. Till Aunt Alison came.
‘Oh yes, Mrs Lockhart, Madame Sklavos is in the lounge room. The little lass. I-reenee? Your auntie! A little bit upset—and entitled to it—under the circs…’
* * *
No-one followed up this initial concern by coming in search of the ‘little lass.’ It left you free to investigate Mrs Lockhart—you could hardly think of her as aunt—by more satisfactory methods than those which adults use for children. Sisterly voices were already issuing by bursts and gusts out of the
window round the corner. Vines and a thicket of shrubs provided perfect cover for a listener if one of the sisters should look out the window.
Mrs Lockhart had an older, throatier, smokier voice than Mamma’s. ‘Good Lord … meeting after all these years makes you feel bloody idiotic.’
‘… unnatural…’ Mamma corrected in her more precise and foreign-sounding voice from years spent in making foreigners understand, whereas Aunt Alison swallowed her words or bit them off like thread after it had served its purpose. Miss Adams would have found it slovenly speech.
‘… always a bombshell artist, Gerry, but never let off one like this…’ trumpets of smoke accompanied the Lockhart voice through the window.
‘How a bombshell to want to bring my child to safety? I am letting off nothing. A situation forced on me by fate.’
‘… like marrying that Greek commo—if you did—Harold bets you didn’t—not that it matters—I’d never blame anybody for not—if it wasn’t for the poor bastards of children…’
A cigarette butt came flinging out the window to smoulder on a mattress of damp leaves.
Mamma’s voice had never sounded so cold and pure.
‘We married to baptise the child. Whatever a Greek believes or doesn’t believe in, birth and death are reasons for Orthodoxy.’
‘All very high-flown, the Orthodoxy bit. In between, the drudgery was left to you.’
‘Petros loved—he adored his child. But had to be away most of the time.’
Couldn’t help hating this aunt’s smoky voice. When Papa loved.
Fingers spilling seed from these little pods which fringe the sill do not hurt what they sow. If you could only hurt this hurtful Lockhart voice, bite it out from where the words came hurtling.
‘… away when you changed the nappy and powdered the rash in her little crotch.’
‘Petros was dedicated to a cause…’
‘… which I married into. Something that you, Ally, could never understand, living in a country which has always been causeless.’
‘I like to think we have a sense of duty towards our children.’
‘Would I have brought her here if I hadn’t felt it my duty?’
‘And do you love her, too?’
‘What an inquisition! Of course I—love—her.’
Mamma’s fury is so fierce you can almost feel it burning from the other side of the sill. But do you, oh, Mamma, do you?
‘Do you, I wonder?’ Mrs Lockhart asks of anyone who has the answer. ‘No-one ever went off at such a bat after dumping her dumpling.’
‘The passage, I tell you—could I—in these days—refuse the offer?’
Mamma is really suffering. She is suffering, has always suffered from anything she suffers. The lies people tell make her suffer, but she suffers most when she tells her own.
‘That was up to you—and the cause, I expect.’ The Lockhart voice is sucking on another cigarette.
What you can’t see is hard to believe. To see is always better than to hear. If only to see them at it. There is this flowerpot lying collecting snails under the skirt of the sooty vine. Turned wrongside up you will have a footstool from which, if careful, you can see inside the room, from the back of the sill.
Mamma’s sister looks old, older it seems than Great Aunt Cleone Tipaldou, from being too much in the sun like the peasants. Her skin is rough as bark, scaly as a hen’s legs. Mamma’s brown eyes, capable of keeping her own secrets are not related to this blue, accusing Lockhart stare blazing out of the burnt face, skin shrivelled most noticeably where it forks below the throat and sweeps away inside any old kind of crumpled cotton frock. Mountain slopes crack open like this at the height of summer. Above the cleavage she is wearing a blackhead like a brooch. Would love to give Aunt Ally’s blackhead a squeeze.
She is stamping, and if smoke and drought had allowed her, would have been shouting at the top of her voice about what they had got on to ‘—expect there’s a man involved in it. You never ran out of men Gerry…’
Anger and argument have filled the room with movement. Mamma consoling her smooth arms avoids her stamping sister. Mamma moves very beautifully.
‘I can’t deny someone is taking an interest. It would be hypocritical wouldn’t it?’
(Would it?) Mamma’s eyes are as terrible in their own brown way as the accusing blue.
‘… and Aleko was Petros’ closest friend…’
‘… and the Cause plays at shuttle-cock…’
They are going on at a great rate about principles. Neither understands the other. Perhaps in the end, nobody
The Lockhart is clutching her long carton of American cigarettes as though her life depends on them.
‘Well, Ireen can depend on me. Couldn’t have her in my own house … four boys—and Harold didn’t want to risk a girl—says he knows all about them. I reckon he must…’
Mrs Lockhart’s skin is every moment shabbier while Mamma’s arms and cheekbones, her beautiful neck look waxed. Why are you not in bed, Eirinitsa? Mamma is crying as you stand in the door like a wax figure, eyes closed, leaving anger and discipline to Papa. You could feel Papa hated you, for that moment, anyway. Will Aleko, his closest friend, hate too if he catches you staring at the wax figures? Or because you aren’t his, will he leave it to Mamma to command? Only it will not happen, you will not be there, you …
The old cracked flowerpot slanting lurching cracking crunching you are standing in the slush and smell the quivering of mashed snails mercifully below the sill. There is the garden.
Doxa sto Theo
, there will always be the garden to scuttle through like any of its insects who have learnt the hiding places.
Looking back from where you have dropped on your knees on something sharp it no longer matters worse blood could not be drawn the sisters have arrived at the window and stand looking out a fright or at least suspicion has shut them up for the present they stand in the wreckage of their principles there is nothing they can see exactly except looking down the rubble of an old flowerpot their faces quivering like a pulp of drying snails. Almost as though they have been caught out like children.