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Authors: Patrick White

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BOOK: The Hanging Garden
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The Lockhart glances at her wrist. ‘Mustn’t forget this boat you have to catch.’ It is a relief to remember there is something she can do, where she can be of use, after straying into the prickly thicket of principles.

Mamma receives less comfort. ‘… yes, the boat…’ She ought to feel released, perhaps she will when they draw up the gangway, but standing at the window, her ideals are still squirming for the trampling they have undergone in what she sees as this rough neglected Australian garden. She says screwing up her face, ‘I must say good-bye to my poor child. I could not bear to have her come to the boat. That would be too heartrending.’

The Lockhart tears a fresh pack from the cellophane binding it to the carton. ‘I don’t doubt…’ she turns a laugh into a cough, swivelling the end of a scaly nose.

Mamma says, ‘It is only a temporary separation. When we have won, Eirene will come … join in building a better Greece…’

They turn back into the house, two sisters united over practical details, like stuffing a suitcase with what has almost been forgotten, and fastening the hasps.

Mamma’s voice is choked at first. When it is next heard, agape now, she is standing on the rotten back steps. She clears her throat and the voice floats out as clear as that of a singer in opera. ‘Eirene? We must say good-bye darling. Mamma cannot miss her boat.’

The Lockhart one has gone up the path to start the car.

Mamma continues, her voice like a descending scale of feathers floating down through the tangle of trees, as you lie with your face in rotting leaves, so warm and smoky they may be at the point of kindling. A red centipede is crawling over your bare arm. A black beetle scratches at your cheek as it tries to climb.

Presently the guardian’s voice. ‘… too upset I expect, Madame Sklavos. Poor little soul.’ She blunders about a bit, because it is her duty, barely leaving the path once she has run her face into a great spider’s web ‘… urrh … nasty! Poison a person…’

‘Sensitive child … don’t you worry, madam, every care will be taken of her. Mamma and the woman are struggling up the path towards the snorting car carrying Mamma’s heavy suitcase. Mamma soon leaves it to the one whose services will be paid for.

Soon there will be the garden alone. If only you could take the form of this red thread of a centipede or beetle that might have crawled out of the dregs of an inkwell to claw and scratch and burrow and hide amongst what is not just rottenness but change to change. To become part of this thick infested garden so swallowed up where Mamma suffers. You could no longer want either house or garden for your own. Only to burrow. Only this other enemy would come, and crush the beetle out of you. Crush you as a girl too, if you did not resist.

As you get up on your uncomfortable heels, the garden which is yours, in your nostrils and under your nails, glooms and shimmers with whatever is to happen. The gate squeals—is it Gilbert Horsfall, socks around his ankles, the battered case with very little joggling round inside it, returning to dispute your ownership?

Ready yourself to kick him in the shins when the pins and needles have died like so many insects in what are still your legs.

*   *   *

Mrs Bulpit had given up clambering up and down the paths and steps of a garden she would not have wanted to own, if it hadn’t gone with the house Reg bought.

‘When you’ve stopped being contrary, young lady,’ she called at her last gasp, ‘you can show yourself and we’ll come to terms.’

She went inside banging the door with the hole in the mosquito wire.

Presently the boy came out, chewing on a hunk of bread. He was carrying a second, holding it at a distance from him. Though the evening had started cooling off, the fat from this second slice of bread had begun to melt, he could feel it messing up his fingers as the dripping from the hunk he was tucking into had smeared his mouth, fattening his lips, making them lazy and content.

If he didn’t find her, he could eat hers as well, so he meandered on, not particularly looking, at moments forgetting the mission Ma Bulpit had sent him on. Then he caught sight of this Irene Sklavos standing below him at the sea wall, which was where he would have least liked to find her. He was looking down on that straight white parting as she scraped the gulls’ white scribble from the wall.

‘Hi,’ he mumped, but not loud enough, he really didn’t want to find her.

She went on scraping, and he went on, his thick-soled school shoes growing heavier as he dragged them along the gritty path to show his indifference, and yet not loud enough for her to hear. If only he would never reach her. What ever would he say to this foreign girl if he did?

As he made the last elbow in the downward path, brushing up against the guava tree to remain unseen till the moment they must face each other, he turned in the direction of the city, and that evening dazzle of sun and water. There was no postponing it. She jerked round to see who had caught her out—or was she catching him? Her eyes were still screwed up in her face, either dazzled, or disgusted.

‘She sent you this,’ he mumbled.

‘What is it?’

‘Bread and dripping.’

She took hold of it at last as though it might have been a dog’s turd you were handing her.

Squinting at it. ‘I never ate anything like this.’ Smelling, touching the stuff with the tip of her tongue, biting in.

‘Aah—po po po!’ Spitting, but not throwing it away.

‘… love it…’ Chewing his last rag of crust he made the act look as ugly as he could. ‘If you don’t want it you can give it here.’

She became more screwed up than ever, and disgusted or something, before glancing back over her shoulder at the fire in the west. ‘My mother’s sailing.’

‘Didn’t go to see her off.’

‘I wouldn’t be here if I had, would I?’

He felt himself grow so hot and red she could only notice. He hated her for the weakness she provoked. She must be one of those, not girls, he hadn’t known enough of them, but like grown-up people, fathers, teachers, who go out of their way to make you look stupid—when you weren’t—or were you? He swallowed down the last of the mush his crust had become.

‘I wouldn’t go. I didn’t want to.’ She suddenly began biting into the bread and dripping.

‘I’d go along any time to watch a ship sail.’

‘You wouldn’t understand, even if I told you.’ The bread was making knots in her throat as it went down. She looked to him like that emu in the zoo, a skinny black emu.

‘All right,’ he said. ‘You’re too clever by half. Anybody can see that.’

She might have been going to cry only the bread and dripping had stopped her mouth up. She was settling down. She was wiping her fingers on the stone wall. A stillness they were sharing made him feel more friendly towards her.

Again she was looking out, across the water, but not in the direction of the blazing city.

‘Where I live,’ she said very slowly, ‘there’s an island with a volcano on it and a temple. You can see the island across the gulf.’

‘What, a real volcano?’

‘Of course, but dead for centuries though no volcano’s ever extinct—it’s only waiting,’ she blubbed or shouted, ‘for the next time.’

He would have liked to get away from this dark snake of a girl.

They were leaving the water. They had begun mounting the path which wound upward through the garden. Antipathy could have died, as an ashy cloud was to obscure the fire in the west, and violence had been suppressed centuries before in the volcano only one of them had seen.

‘Did you ever go to the island?’ he asked.

‘No,’ she said dully. ‘There was always too much to do. My father and mother were political. There was no-one to take me. My father died in prison then the war came.’

‘How did he die?’ the boy asked.

‘We don’t know.’

She announced it with a flatness which sounded odd. The violence of that extinct volcano was still stirring and bubbling in him. There was something about this volcano which impressed him more deeply than bombs and war; the volcano was more private, secret.

Perhaps because she had seen it, if only at a distance, the girl was less impressed by it. Her father died in prison. Was the father someone the Colonel would disapprove of? As you disapproved of Irene Sklavos. He shivered as a pittosporum scratched him and recoiled on to her thin black arm.

She did not seem to notice he had touched her, perhaps thinking of the mother who was leaving her behind.

‘What was this temple on the island?’ he asked, quietly so as not to disturb a situation which had grown quite agreeable.

‘People used to go there to pray to the goddess.’

They continued trudging up the broken path.

‘Do you pray?’ he asked more carefully than ever.

‘Mm?’ she sighed. ‘It depends.’

Remembering his experience of communal prayer with the Ballards, he said flat out ‘I don’t—not any more than I have to.’ His mother was such a vague figure he could barely remember what she would have thought. The Colonel was not a church goer while expecting his son to do his duty. ‘Do your parents pray?’ he asked the girl.

‘Papa was a Marxist. But I think he prayed when things got bad. Mamma says religion isn’t rational.’

‘If your parents were Marxist—rationalist—all that—what do you know about praying then?’

‘Aunt Cleonaki taught me—about the Panayia and the Saints. Some of the saints are good,’ she giggled, ‘but you mustn’t believe all of it, Aunt Cleone says, that’s pagan superstition.’

His breath was coming in short gasps. It wasn’t just from the cliff they were climbing by stages. He wanted her to continue talking. ‘What’s this Pana-year?’

‘The Mother of God. She’s lovely. When I pray at all I pray to her.’

They were drifting dreamily together, through a gathering dusk which the tangle of garden intensified.

‘There’s the
pneuma
too. I like to think about it.’

‘What’s the
pneuma
?’ His breath was almost snorting, it had grown so heavy.

‘I don’t know.’ She conceded to herself. ‘I can’t tell you—not in English.’

He believed she was lying. She would always try to put one over him.

To show that he hadn’t been led away he assumed the voice the Lockharts—Bruce and Kevin—might have used.

‘Wonder what the old girl’s got for tea.’

She said she wasn’t hungry.

He told her, ‘I could put away twice the muck we’ll get.’

He did not seem to have impressed her. They were on the lap before the last flight of stone steps. They were passing the broken statue, under the largest, darkest fig with the flying air roots, where they had first met. Her silence made his skin creep as if ants were walking over it. Was she still thinking of the Panayear and the
pneuma
? A milky cloud was floating overhead in a gap between the branches of the great fig.

As they came out into the yard he began clattering his boots against the concrete as though to rid them of accumulated dirt blaring a non-tune from behind large bared teeth. She followed him meekly. Any conversation they might have had was buried inside them.

Inside the house you get away from Gilbert Horsfall as quickly as you can. You have said all you had to say to him. You wish he wasn’t living here. From sounds in the kitchen the guardian probably won’t cause immediate trouble. You make for the bedroom where in spite of Mamma, you had been most nearly private. Your few things must be there unpacked from the suitcase Mamma has taken back with her.

Your things are there, higgledy piggledy on a chair, and overflowing on to the floor. A stocking hanging from the chair arm, might never have belonged to anybody. The room has already changed back to what it must have been before strangers were admitted. You feel trapped beneath a great white canopy or mosquito net. Though the bed is not at the centre of the room, it and the invisible net will swim centre for sleep and dreams where there were a few stray hairpins and a sprinkling of face powder on the dressing table the night before, a photo of the husband has appeared, a smaller duplicate print of the one in the room where Gilbert sleeps. (What would you do with a husband, not a warrant officer but one say like Papa angrily poised above Mamma’s wax figure? You could always keep your eyes shut.) Too many traps. During the day the carpet has sprouted a thick mossy pile. As you advance towards the dressing table your feet scarcely move. It might suck you under, to become a corpse along with other insects it has snared.

Apart from the upright photograph the most noticeable object on the dressing table you might never reach is the box from which the owner’s powder must have spilled before she whisked it away. Printed, or you could say written on the lid of the box again in its rightful place, were the words
Mon Desir
. Inside the box, half open from recent slapdash use is the puff, the powder in its shabby swansdown clotted with moisture. Looking at it makes you sneeze. You could see the puff coating its owner’s marzipan flesh with a tint deeper than was natural.

The worst trap of all is the thought of sharing the bed with Mrs Bulpit as you had to some extent shared it with Mamma. Mrs B’s suspender belt snapping must sound like the crack of a whip. In her dreams of the warrant officer she might roll over and flatten even a sleepless partner.

Escape immediately if the net, if the moss in which you stand rooted amongst insect corpses, allowed. There is this sound of metal rings. Are they those of the net canopy, rustling into action? Extraordinarily the moss is withering, parting like the Egyptian sea. I may fall as I shoot towards the door on a floor as glassy as one on which they scatter powder for those who have learnt to dance.

*   *   *

It is the woman’s voice rustling out of the kitchen deeper in the house, from out of cutlery and pans, and the smell of onion, no longer the sickly scent of
Mon Desir
. ‘… Show her, Gilbert, now that you’ve found her, where to wash her hands, I don’t want to see either of you till I have your tea ready. There’s no room for moping or muttering children. Other people have their troubles, you know. One of my migraines is coming on. So if it isn’t too much to ask … I’ll be obliged if you behave reasonably…’

BOOK: The Hanging Garden
8.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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