Authors: Patrick White
The voice sounded slurred, whether from the migraine or something she had taken for it. She was obviously under the weather, which was not surprising, Eirene felt. If it had not been for the positive smell of frying onion you might have broken down and cried in this dark passage on the way from the bedroom to nowhere.
Suddenly the boy appeared, whom she had dismissed a short while before. She was glad to see his face glimmer at her, still formless as it approached.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘you don’t have to wash if you don’t feel like it. Turn the tap on, rattle round in the sink a bit, and she’ll calm down.’
He led her out to a scullery or laundry which overlooked part of the back yard. Here he began behaving as he had advised. But Eirene chose to fill the sink and cool her hands. These looked surprisingly helpless for one who normally recognised her own powers. As she wrapped them together and round a piece of yellow soap, and allowed them to escape from her, the hands became a pair of fish too small to send to the market. Which did not remove the probability that somebody would eat them, and in the scullery the smells of sick linoleum and the yellow soap now stranded shiny on the drying board took over from the comforting stench of frying onion.
‘There’s a towel,’ he told her, ‘but too wet to use. Seeing you were silly enough to wash, you’d better dry your hands on yourself.’
She was glad to come across this practical strain in her companion. She might make use of it later on. In the morning it filled some of the emptiness left by her mother’s going away.
After the washing ceremony they went outside for no definite purpose beyond passing the time till their tea was ready. They sat on the steps leading to the yard. The dark trees and browned-out lights of the city beyond encouraged a melancholy which she suspected the boy did not share. His body was harder. It helped him not to mind things so much.
He sat scratching a scab on his knee, and from the goo he felt under his fingers must have got it off finally. He smeared the blood about on the skin but it gave him no idea how he might impress this girl, who had seen a volcano, whose father had died in prison and who had come from where a war was taking place.
‘Did you see anybody killed?’ he asked, ‘in the war, I mean.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘The war was in the mountains. It was at this time still … heroic.’ She spoke with such slow and special emphasis he could see it rounding in the dark in front of them, like a drop of suspended blood transformed into a jewel. ‘Oh, I did see something,’ she remembered. ‘An old man hit by a tank outside the gardens. His head was squashed. His brains were mashed into the paving. They said it was done by a British tank. Because the British were in retreat, you see. Then the Germans marched in—and that was different. British MTV took us off because we were friends.’
He envied her all she had experienced and her professional use of terms. It was too unfair that he had so little to offer.
‘Were you afraid?’
‘Not really. I was taken care of. It didn’t seem to be happening to me. It would have been different if we had stayed for Greece. I planned to take Evthymia’s sharpest meat knife and kill a German on a dark night.’
‘Doesn’t sound to me as bad as the Blitz in London.’
‘I don’t know about that,’ she said.
‘Thousands killed every night the bombers came over. It was one big firework display. When you got used to it you didn’t stay in the shelters with a mob of people smelling and farting. Bombs tore through the shelters, anyway. You got used to walking through the streets through the shrapnel. And in the ruins by day. One night I was shot out of the corridor on my mattress—landed in the street—thought I was dead till I heard a warden ask, ‘Anyone know this boy’s name?’ Somebody did. They said, ‘It’s Nigel Horsfall from a block away.’
‘I thought your name was Gilbert.’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it is.’
They continued sitting side by side on the steps overlooking the garden. Had she dropped to him? From her dreamy look he didn’t think so. And he wasn’t that much a liar. Though he had been evacuated with those other kids before the bombs began to fall you knew what it was like as though you had been there, from what you had been told. If you had imagination you knew. And some had died with poor old Nigel, his only friend. You knew through Nigel. Silly of you though to let the name slip.
But she hadn’t cottoned on. He took another look. He might have taken her by the hand. They were wandering through the blacked-out streets. In the ruin of some great house they looked down at the marble face, like of some goddess broken out of a volcanic temple, only the lips began to breathe, very gently. Irene Sklavos did not seem surprised, it could have been her own face whitened. There was a man and woman pressed up against each other in a gateway. Nigel Brown who knew more about it said they were fucking. Irene Sklavos seemed unsurprised, when you—or was it Nigel?—led her farther into these desolated streets which belonged to you both by rights of the life you had begun to share, through imagination and dreams.
He looked at her again to see what she was thinking, from her side-on face. If he had pulled her round and stared at her eye to eye, she would have had the round, gently breathing face of the yellow, bomber’s moon. Side-on, she was this sharp know-all. If he had touched her elbows or knee-caps they would have been as sharp, as cutting as the words of teachers in class or the Lockhart louts—Kevin and Bruce. He couldn’t tell which side she was on.
* * *
When they were seated one each side of her at the kitchen table their guardian told them, ‘You may wonder at us eating such a nice piece of steak in wartime. It’s because Mr Strutt did me a favour—a mate of Reg’s—another of us from the Old Country—always down at the Imperial when we was running it—all returned men—things was different in those days.’
She had cut up her steak very fine. She was only messing with it, the chips were more to her taste. She gobbled at them in between what she had to tell. One of the big flabby chips fell out of her mouth and landed in the gravy, which shot up and spotted her dress.
‘You children,’ she said, ‘wouldn’t understand.’
Then she realised she ought to clean up the gravy spots and began mopping at them with a hankie. Her red lip-stuff had worn off. Her mouth should have looked normal, except most grown-ups never look that.
Gilbert Horsfall looked across at Irene Sklavos. They should have felt good for a giggle, but they weren’t. Like Ma Bulpit, the girl was only picking at her food. She had the sniffles. She looked darker than ever, if not positively green.
In between observing the others and disapproving their wasted opportunities, Gilbert Horsfall polished off his own plateful. He still felt hungry. He might have helped out, he thought—urgh, no, not the mess Ma Bulpit’s shiny teeth had refused, now sitting in its own fat. But Irene had hardly touched her tea. He could imagine taking a mouthful of the untouched steak and converting the stringy old stuff into a delicious tenderness. He shivered as his teeth entered the soft, greasy chips. All his imagined acts were becoming so real, he wondered whether Irene would see that he was almost peeing himself. But she kept her eyelids lowered.
Ma Bulpit had begun pulling out. ‘Expect you’re waiting on the pudding,’ she mumbled. ‘All young things have a sweet tooth,’ chair grating almost to toppling, ‘that’s why we lose them,’ as she stumbled in the direction of the kitchen which swallowed her signature tune. ‘In the old days I was famous for my Apple Betty.’
Irene Sklavos raised her eyelids.
‘What is this Betty?’
Her question promoted Gilbert Horsfall to the rank of friend. He was both grateful for the honour and reluctant to accept it.
‘Arr,’ he said, sticking out his lips remembering his Lockhart mentors, ‘it’s got these sort of pip-scales in it that make you wanter puke—right enough if you’ve still got to fill your belly.’
She looked so unhappy he clenched his knuckles under the table. He hoped she wouldn’t take him for a Lockhart, but could think of no way of showing her he was otherwise.
Aluminium began battering the silence which had gathered in the kitchen.
Mrs Bulpit appeared leaning in the doorway. ‘Got a bit burnt,’ she explained, ‘on the top.’
The accident didn’t prevent laughter spilling out from around her teeth. She could even have been feeling relieved, anyway for a moment, because in aiming at, and plummeting into her chair, she declaimed, ‘… you gotter forgive … me migraine’s coming on … a martyr to it.’
She sat holding a hand above her eyes, like a vast white celluloid shade, while her audience wondered whether they were impressed or suspicious.
Suddenly removing the shade from her afflicted eyes, she announced, ‘It’s the migraine that’s kept me from turning out the lovely room I have for our little lass. Too much happening at once,’ she sighed. ‘I’ll get round to it, but tonight she’ll have to camp somewhere else.’
Eirene Sklavos sat very upright, her neck grown as thin as the stem of a flower. The lobes of her ears seemed to flicker like freshly opened peablossom, only that was impossible. It was more likely that her earlier suspicion would be confirmed, and that she would have to share Mrs Bulpit’s bed.
‘Aren’t we going to get the pud, Mrs Bulpit?’ Gilbert Horsfall thought it reasonable to ask.
She was too preoccupied to answer.
And Eirene thought him stupid not to recognise the direction from which serious threats can be expected. In spite of his male strength, he would remain an unreliable ally.
The Bulpit was starting again. ‘What I think I’ll do,’ she mumbled as she unlocked her thighs gripping the chair arms with her great white squelchy hands, ‘I’ll make up the other bed in Reg’s—in Mr Bulpit’s room—till we get ourselves sorted out.’
She sounded as though she was addressing herself—or the former W/O—rather than those more deeply concerned. Of these, Eirene might have felt relief, Gilbert Horsfall could have been stunned, but neither of them revealed a reaction, which in any case their guardian was prepared to ignore.
As she rolled once again out of her constricting chair, she appeared more than anything relieved to have made what amounted to a decision. ‘… and I wouldn’t call it a bad one…’ She continued mumbling as she moved about in different dark recesses of the house ‘… the best I can manage to suit us all’ her voice additionally blurred and furry from the smells of damp and mothballs she was dragging out of cupboards.
At one stage passing through the room in which the less important actors in the play had continued sitting, herself a blanketed monument with a train of sheet attached, she suggested, ‘If you two kids thought of getting on with the washing up, a person would be much obliged.’
Gilbert Horsfall grimaced, winked, and went through a series of wriggly motions with his torso. In normal circumstances it might have amused his audience. Now Eirene Sklavos could only accept his leadership and follow him dully into the kitchen.
There at least it was warm, not to say fuzzy from the charred ruin of the pudding in its aluminium dish, the remains of congealed steak and chips, and what must have been brandy fumes, judging from a half-emptied bottle standing beside the sink in important isolation.
Gilbert grabbed it and reeled as he thrust it at Eirene. ‘’Ave a swig?’ he croaked.
She ducked away. But some of the brandy splashed over her.
Gilbert actually stuck the mouth of the bottle in his and she thought she heard a glug or two and saw his throat in motion. She couldn’t be sure. She couldn’t be sure of anything about this boy. But for the moment she depended on him. For that reason she even loved him, she thought.
Removing the bottle from his lips, he gasped, ‘So much for the orgy. Now it’s down to business.’
He was filling the sink, swizzling the water with soap imprisoned in a wire basket scraping plates into an already smelly bin.
She would have liked to help, but didn’t know how. In their Marxist household there had been Vaso, with her
, in Aunt Cleone’s vaguely democratic Republican establishment there was Evthymia to attend to duties beneath a lady. Without slaves, Eirene Sklavos pricked her finger on a fork before throwing that weapon into the sinkful of frothing water.
She stood looking at the pinpoint of blood on the cushion of her finger. It provided some kind of focus point.
‘Here, dreamy. Take the towel, if you’re too grand to dirty your hands.’
She obeyed him rather gratefully, and began rubbing at the cutlery and plates, but the towel only seemed to make them wetter. It did not matter. Nothing did. While Mamma was sitting in the saloon, listening to men express their ideas. Particularly those of Father’s friend Aleko. Mamma grew still watching the little black tufts of hair on the backs of Aleko’s fingers.
Gilbert Horsfall’s hands were blond, shiny, hairless as he plunged and re-plunged them in the sink. They were scarcely human.
‘Do you like doing it?’ she murmured.
?’ as he flipped his hands he flicked back water into the sink. ‘You gotter do it here. Australians are supposed to be useful.’
‘We didn’t have to. So I never learned.’
‘Thought your people were supposed to be commos.’
‘They had their ideas. There was always someone, someone else to do the things like washing up.’
‘I wouldn’t do any bloody washing up if you didn’t have to stay on the right side of the old girl.’
Across the distance separating them they stood looking at the charred ruin of the Apple Betty. Nothing had ever looked so extinct.
Gilbert Horsfall grabbed a fork and stabbed at it. ‘Bloody well burnt out!’ he cried.
It made her giggle in spite of her deep melancholy.
—like that Greek volcano you were telling me about.’
The charred pudding, the volcano, reminded them of more important matters, for they began drifting by common though silent consent towards the exercise. Mrs Bulpit was commanding in what had been, was still in fact, the warrant officer’s bedroom.
‘There!’ she exclaimed, staggering back from tucking in a stray end of sheet between the mattress and a narrow bed. ‘Nobody could find fault with that.’