Authors: Patrick White
A veil of perspiration streamed over her suetty face as she stood admiring her handiwork. She looked quite religious.
Till snapping out of her trance, ‘I think we’ll agree to call it a day. Thanks for the washing-up, Gilbert—Ireen,’ she leered as she lumbered out.
But popped back to remind, ‘I hope you’re not mischievous children. No
After that she could be heard in the kitchen extracting the pudding from its aluminium armour, and removing her mouth from a bottle, it sounded.
The children were left to face the details of an oppressive present and a frightening, larger-than-life future.
There was no tune to Gilbert’s whistling as he tore himself out of his clothes. Eirene did not know what to do, say, or where to look. She continued standing beside what Mrs Bulpit had ordained as her bed. She did in fact slightly glance in her ally’s direction. In his nakedness he had his back to her, buttocks tensed, ribs in each case visible. He was skinnier than she would have imagined. Then he began putting on these old pyjamas with stripes of washed-out blue on them, and tying a string round his middle.
He asked, ‘Aren’t you going to undress?’ though still with his back to her.
‘No,’ she replied.
He got into bed, pulling the sheet over his head.
‘We didn’t last night, Mamma and I.’
‘You’ll be smelly if you don’t, two nights running.’
She took off her shoes and stood them together as neatly as Aunt Cleone would have demanded. She pulled off her stockings, rolling each into a ball before sticking them in her empty shoes. She too took off her dress, folded and hung it over the foot of the bed. After this there was nothing to prevent her getting between Mrs Bulpit’s damp grey sheets.
She should have felt safely sandwiched, and the surrounding silence saved her from further depredations, if it had not been for a distant crash.
‘What is it—Gilbert?’ she asked.
‘Possums.’ His mouth made a big round O through the sheet.
‘They must be huge.’
‘Some of them are,’ the sheet veiling his face quivered with suppressed sniggers, before he snatched it off.
‘Gotter turn the light out!’
He tore across the room in the washed-out pyjamas, the legs and sleeves of which were by now too short.
Then darkness rushed at them. It swallowed the leaning warrant officer, the pieces of Bulpit furniture, and anything as personal as the hopes and fears of those temporarily living there.
A violent plunk of springs told Eirene Sklavos that Gilbert Horsfall must have landed back on his bed. The distance separating them stretched even wider than before. The rough sheets were sawing at her. The bloodspot on the finger she had pricked with a fork swelled against the darkness and swelled, becoming—was it? The head of that old man a tank had crushed outside the Royal (or National) gardens. Swelling and spilling. The old man’s bloody brains.
‘Tell us something.’
Gilbert’s voice had roughened in an attempt to become a man’s. She recognised the tone. It was that of the men Mamma enjoyed talking to. Holding her head on one side. You tried out your head in imitation against the rough, damp, Bulpit pillow.
‘I haven’t anything,’ she murmured back across the darkness lying between them.
‘You had plenty when we were talking before.’
‘That was then.’ She heard herself mewing into the pillow.
She couldn’t tell him. She hardly knew.
The darkness was rocking, not so much the boat carrying her back to a war, but the motions of the dance she was dancing in the
in Alexandria. Mamma hated this officer, but her body could not refuse to dance.
‘You’re a sooky sort of girl,’ Gilbert Horsfall was complaining.
All the girls he had known were crowding in on her through the darkness, long-legged yellow-haired English girls, cold and perfect Miss Adams said she loved the daffies in spring time at Home. Some of Gilbert’s girls wore lipstick. They were women in front.
‘I can’t help it,’ she mewed worse than ever.
They entered the worst silence of all. Was any of it happening to them? The war, Australia, this vast Bulpit room with iron beds clamped to opposite walls.
‘Why don’t you come over?’ he twittered.
Why should she? It made her raise her head against the pillow. Others always came to Mamma. This boy with the hoarse voice and shrunk pyjamas. Gilbert Horsfall’s wriggly torso. Who knew about bread and dripping. She snorted slightly, licked her lips. She had never felt so tall and slender. Her strength was returning.
‘Not if you’re afraid,’ he said, ‘but you needn’t worry about
. She’s as safe as a lead sinker once she’s under the brandy.’
not afraid. It’s you. Otherwise you’d come over here.’
To demonstrate the truth of her remark and her own superiority, she jumped out of bed before he could, only regretting her recklessness halfway across the gritty darkness, and set up a mewing again on stubbing her toe on a castor. At once the dark was full of threats. It was a comfort to find herself thrown forward, sprawling like a crab on Gilbert Horsfall’s bony chest.
… it’s cold,’ she moaned.
‘Not where I come from,’ he whinged back.
The temperature was at least an excuse for her to get into bed and pull up the clothes. She would have liked to snuggle, but lay as stiff and straight as he was lying. It seemed there was nothing either of them could do beyond go along with those private palpitations, fluctuating with rubbery persistence, and listen to each other’s breathing.
In the distance there was the sound of a ship, the grumbling of a city’s traffic, farther still the explosions and guns, the cries of those who are wounded, which your blood and your dreams know everything about.
After a while, when they slid into what felt like a shallow backwater, halfway between thoughts and sleep, he thumped his limbs against the mattress and started getting at her again, ‘Tell me about the
‘I told you, I can’t. Not in English.’
‘But you could if you wanted to.’
‘You can’t! You can’t! It’s the sort of thing you can’t talk about.’
‘If I was dying,’ he croaked, twisting his head from side to side, grinding a feverish body against the mattress, ‘you’d hold out on me?’
She could feel her teeth grow very small as she smiled at the darkness.
‘It’s like the moon.’
‘The moon’s pagan, isn’t it?’
‘Not always.’ She was very happy to discover this.
‘I bet you’re not telling me anything of what you know.’ In his expostulation and feverish tossing, his wrist brushed against hers. She was surprised to find it covered with minute hooks.
She would have liked her wrist to give into his but did not dare. Then again, she didn’t want to, did she?
‘Hadn’t we better go to sleep?’ she said, and turned her back on him.
She got a surly grunt.
Not long after she didn’t know what had happened to Gilbert Horsfall. She was sitting by herself at the small round table its top moulded out of pig’s brawn edged with a pie-crust in some kind of metal. Not by herself really there was the small white cup with its sludge of Turkish—no, Greek coffee, and the glass with the half-finished
(more than the solid glass and its half-drunk contents she was conscious of the voice which had ordered it.) Her own
was out of focus except as something sweet and sticky. Like your fingers. Mamma
Now it was the music stickily revolving inside the oval of this
that Mamma should have condemned. This
. Like a sticky drum revolving and revolving. Leaning forward chin in hand brought you closer to the dancers, stamping a point into the floor (brawn again). The thick ankles in wartime shoes, Mamma says it is impossible to look elegant in wartime, Maltese, Jewish, Greek, Armenian, Hungarians and Romanians are different, because professional, or dishonest. As she revolves, with the
who has brought them to the
. She can’t resist the sticky dance any more than the old lady’s
beside her on the gold chain can resist the strawberry tartlet served by the Arab on the surface of the pig’s-brawn table.
As the dancers revolve to the repetitive music of the
, bump and stamp, the Greek, the Maltese, the Armenian, the thick ankles, the short-legged Jewesses, and more professional Romanians and Hungarians. Stamp and swerve. The pistachio eyes of some dancers. Eyes beaded with Egyptian flies. O
Mamma twists and turns in the arms of the Greek
. His badly fitted uniform, particularly between the legs, Mamma is the one who cuts and thrusts. He is her dummy. Her lips wear something brittle in the cruel tango. For Papa who died? For the Greek cause? For herself? Never for you. The sticky tears rain down on the unfinished
in this cruel dream.
She awoke crying. Gilbert, too, must have been asleep. He felt hot and moist as they lay against each other, tumbled into the same heap. Now he started lashing about, perhaps to show he had been awake all the while. It was only she who had been a prey to dreams.
‘What you were dreaming about. Was it bad?’ he asked.
‘Not really.’ She paused, wondering how far her conscience, according to Aunt Cleone, would condone a lie. ‘Actually,’ she said, in her best Miss Adams voice, ‘I was dreaming about the moon.’
‘No, the moon,’ she corrected him firmly, as though the
were her private property.
‘Sometimes,’ she conceded, ‘if you pray hard enough—if you want
—you can be drawn up inside it.’
‘Were you—in this dream?’
‘Yes.’ She lay listening to her dishonest heart.
‘And what about me?’
‘Oh, you weren’t in it—in any way—in the dream. I don’t see why you should have been.’
They had restored the distance between them.
‘Sometimes when the Blitz was on I used to draw the black-out curtains. I thought if I could see the bombs falling I’d know the best way to escape. But you never saw. Only the moon.’
The moon’s blue, gelatinous face with the forms of those milky twins inside it.
Before falling asleep, before the act of levitation took place, they drifted together again, their unprotesting skins, inside the steamy envelope of Bulpit sheets.
* * *
Mrs Lockhart has driven up in this old brown dislocated car, maltreated by the kicks, the shoving, the protests of too many boys’ feet and bodies. She has come to investigate the niece and take her to school. Perhaps a more difficult situation than any Mrs Lockhart has ever managed, though she is used to difficult situations, what with Harold and the boys. Harold doesn’t drive. He takes the ferry to the Department. He has always considered his not driving a superior accomplishment. He refers to ‘Alison’s car’, which would have made it hers even if she hadn’t wanted it. Actually she has always wanted it. It is more her home than the equally maltreated, ricketty, weatherboard house in which they live.
Now she sits in her more personal, mobile home at the Bulpit’s gate, pausing a moment in an inevitably active life, before making an actively distasteful move. If it were not for this she could have been enjoying her freedom, under a blue sky, in a blaze of winter sunshine. She has with her everything she most needs (her supply of cigarettes and tissues) and no appendages (of course she loves the boys, she is less sure of Harold—yes, she is very very uncertain that she should have fallen into such a trap as marriage with Harold). And now Gerry’s child, Ally sighs. She swivels her dented, sunburnt nose. She sweeps the ash out of her cleavage (one bitch of a friend suggests she ought to see a dermatologist about this blackhead) and starts clambering out of the Chev. Can you be starting an early arthritis? Give Harold additional grounds for playing the absentee husband.
‘Oh yes, Mrs Lockhart, the little lass is waiting for you.’
The dreadful Bulpit has assembled her charge early, only too glad to unload her on other unwilling hands. She is standing in the lounge room, picking at the arm of one of Mrs Bulpit’s seedy chairs.
‘Here’s your auntie, love.’
The Bulpit ducks out too willingly.
The child does not look up. She continues picking. She is neater than anything Alison has ever envisaged. Alison experiences a spasm of revulsion from the contradictory details of Geraldine’s complex life. The fact that they are sisters has always amazed her. This dark child is the most amazing fact of all.
Should they kiss? At least Gerry was never a kisser. Never even seen her kiss a man. And the child obviously doesn’t want to be mauled by a gratuitous aunt.
Better sit down a moment or two for decency’s sake. Plunk on the Bulpit springs.
‘I expect you find it all very strange…’
Oh Lord the lighter’s given out. These bloody wartime flints. Lord—without my cigs. ‘Do you think you could ask Mrs Bulpit for a box of matches?’
She trots out. The neat, the pretty are usually cunning—the type Harold takes up with. At least he saw the red light, without even meeting Ireen, and refused to have her at the house. Blamed it on the boys.
When it’s Gerry really. Always was. Harold hadn’t turned up by then. But always. At the dances. Whirling out in a waltz. Shoving away at a foxtrot, up against their crotches. They said your sister’s stuck up but it never reduced her market value. Geraldine Pascoe. Became a nurse. I ask you. Never believed in Gerry’s vocation for a moment. Lead them on and tie them down, erection and all, under a sheet that was it. No typing pool for Gerry.
typing—ha ha. Can’t think why Harold ever. Perhaps he married a typist. Those boring novels nobody will ever publish.