Authors: Patrick White
I am plain, plain, plain. Mother said it. Father even called it ugly, the night of the great piss up, when he came, and went, and stayed away forever.
Here she is. Back with the matches. Tripping pretty sweeting. Who ever said it?
‘Thank you, dear. It’s sweet of you.’ Hypocritical word, but what they use, ‘That’s better.’ Cough, cough. Smoke, if you could tell her, or any one of any of those damn parsons, is one of the few remaining mysteries.
Instead cough. ‘Your mother must be proud of you.’
The child turns on those eyes, not Gerry’s could be the Greek commo’s—or her own? God, yes, I hope they’re her own—if it wouldn’t make her lovelier.
‘Ireen, dear—we’re late enough—we ought to start for school—hope it won’t be too shocking—it won’t—the boys love it…’
Oh God, she’s still looking at me.
‘If there’s ever anything you need, dear, or want to know—you’ll ask me, won’t you?’
‘Yes, Mrs Lockhart.’
Oh God. Well I
, aren’t I?
‘Where’s Mrs Bulpit? We’re going! Mrs Bul-pit? On our
She comes running, the ghastly creature, head first, almost over the lounge.
‘The lunch,’ she gobbles. ‘A child needs a nourishing cut lunch—specially in wartime.’
Not a bad old stick, she’s even produced a case.
‘Old, but it’ll serve, Mrs Lockhart, till we get something better.’
Ireen takes the battered case. She holds it at the end of a stiff arm. It might have contained a bomb instead of this other jumping object—a cut lunch.
* * *
You didn’t want any sort of lunch, least of all a cut one.
cut Vasieolis’ throat. If you stopped eating, you would die quietly, painlessly. They will pick you up like a bunch of wilted spinach, from which the green will have drained away. No blood, either green or red.
Anyway, for this moment, you would have liked to live in such a way, following the Australian aunt up the path through the garden to which you no longer have or want to have a right. Belonging nowhere. The cat tripping across ahead her tail in the air belongs somewhere here, in this garden which you believed was becoming yours.
The aunt has wrinkles in her skirt below her behind. Wrinkles in her stockings. She is what Aunt Cleone calls
. Mamma sees poverty as a virtue. Class is a different matter. Here Mamma would agree with Aunt Cleone even when her own sister is at stake. But Alison Lockhart is scarcely Mamma’s sister. As you have seen and heard yesterday standing on the flowerpot at the window sill.
Scurrying up the concrete path she is wondering what she can say to me. I answer it trying to get it. I can’t help her.
‘Well, here’s the
, Ireen. Throw your case in the back. As you can see, the boys have left it in the hell of a mess.’
There are several pairs of scarred, muddy boots with knobbed soles, and these wads of newspapers with coloured drawings, stirred together, torn and trampled into the dust on the floor of Mrs Lockhart’s car. The case thumps and bounces where you throw it, as she told you to. Glad to be rid of the hateful ‘lunch’.
Now she is trying to start the car. It will not go.
‘Asthmatic. But in the end it doesn’t let you down.’
She is pressing and prodding and pulling at things. This is how she gets the wrinkles on her bottom. Wheezing and coughing out the smell of smoke. A bit asthmatic herself, it seems.
For the car has started to jerk and jump—to
. She is glad to show off its virtues.
But such an old rattling dirty car—is Mamma’s sister poor perhaps? Then Mamma should see her as virtuous. But doesn’t. More people hate than love one another.
* * *
If I had one of those lustrous, winged machines—Bentley, Lancia—would I have the courage to step on it and escape from the web of duties in which I am caught? Mornings like this demand winged cars and freedom, to match glistening water, gulls’ wings, a ship breasting the swell at the Heads.
But I doubt my habits would be altered by a glamorous car.
Anyone observing me still following my beaten track in the winged Bentley delivering children to school, bullying greengrocers and butchers into letting me have their wartime produce cheap would interpret my behaviour as devotion to duty. Because I am outwardly an active, positive character (‘bossy’ to those who dislike me) not even enemies guess at my lack of will power and dread of being trodden on. Better say something to Ireen. ‘Mr Harbord—the headmaster—is a man I can respect—and hope you will too.’ She’s probably not listening to you, foreigners are like that, they back away into their own language. ‘Some parents—children too—find him too strict—but in such a
Oh Lord children can make you feel idiotic. They know too much in some cases. Where the hell they get it from …
‘I gather you haven’t had much schooling.’
‘There was Miss Adams when I was little.’
‘Governesses were all very well in the past.’
‘She didn’t stay long. Mamma said they couldn’t afford her.’
‘I thought it was your father’s aunt who paid.’
‘Mamma says it depends on the parents—to civilise.’
‘Civilisation—it’s exams that count in real life. And anyway if your parents weren’t there…’
‘There was Aunt Cleone. She speaks five languages.’
‘A very gifted old lady, I understand. Let’s hope some of it has rubbed off on you Ireen. You’ll need it.’ I am talking the most utter cock, the sort of thing adults tell children—and one another, for that matter. ‘One more bend, and I’ll be able to show you your school.’
Poor kid’s stiffening like a little cat.
‘You know what I’m going to do. I’m going to stop a second and light up.’ Grapple with the cellophane. Terrible how you can become dependent on a puff of smoke.
Ireen sits. I can feel gratitude for a reprieve seeping out of her. Stay here in this hot old car. It’s what each of you would prefer. Don’t think I ever grew up. On the other hand Ireen was born old. It could provide a meeting ground of sorts.
‘That’s better.’ As the smoke tendrils grow upward against the windscreen like grey plants against the glass wall of a conservatory.
Say something. ‘Out there amongst the rocks, that’s lantana. It’s a curse. I used to think it pretty, till I was told it wasn’t. A great haunt for cats. Know it?’
* * *
It is neither pretty nor ugly—like so much so far. Mrs Lockhart is picking at a shred of tobacco stuck to her chapped, lower lip. Her teeth are stained and irregular. But this about the cats begins to make her Aunt Alison—Ally—I wish we could sit here forever amongst the invisible cats, disappear into the sun, the light, as it was in Greece before the war began. Mamma would not sit long enough, Ally might if you persuaded her.
As I can’t talk to her in any language, she starts grunting, getting into gear, and we are driving round the last bend before the school. We are re-entering the streets of little purple and blood-red houses.
‘There,’ she says, ‘see?’ trying to make it sound exciting and important, though she is not the least bit excited. ‘There’s the school in the far block—set back a bit above the houses—
out of alignment
. D’you know what “alignment” is?’
‘Well, it doesn’t matter. We think the old building has its architectural points. The rest is more or less temporary.’
The old building doesn’t look all that old, the whole school looks like a barracks at home, or sheds they have built for refugees, after a disaster. Aunt Cleone says we must be kind to all refugees, particularly those from Asia Minor.
She is pulling up in front of the school.
‘Bring your case, Ireen.’
She has two lines from her nostrils to the corners of her mouth. She sits a few moments behind the wheel after you have brought out the case with the lunch lurching round inside it. Then she takes out a lipstick from her bag and bloodies her mouth. She looks at herself in the little driver’s mirror, mumbling on her lips, working the stuff into the cracks. Aunt Cleone says only common women paint their mouths. I don’t think Mrs Lockhart—Aunt Ally—is common. Won’t she get out? We’ve got to go in.
It has become very hot inside the cold wind. The asphalt is blistering my feet as we cross it. Aunt Ally trips as her left foot loses contact with its platform. Cleonaki says the actors are wearing these high soles because that’s how it was in enacting the ancient tragedies.
As we approach, the building is humming with the voices of children at their lessons. Faces looking out here and there from windows are a fleshy grey like the leaves of plants grown behind glass.
Now we are clattering through this passage in the old building which has its architectural points. Aunt Ally seems to know without guidance how to find the headmaster’s door. Her boys go to school here of course.
We are asked to come in.
Mr Harbord has been awaiting us. Wasn’t I expected? He is a bald man with a stomach. He is wearing glasses which magnify his pale blue eyes. His smile magnifies his large teeth.
‘How are we, Mrs Lockhart?’ he asks, and laughs as though his question is a joke.
‘Not bad, thank you, Mr Harbord.’ Aunt Alison laughs, she has switched to another language, and sounds unlike what you came to think of as herself. ‘This is my niece, Ireen Sklavos.’ She stands smiling, working the lipstick into those cracks in her lips.
You are apparently the greater part of the joke Mr Harbord and Aunt Alison share.
Mr Harbord places a hand for a moment on the crown of your head, then removes it as though it has done its duty.
‘How’s Mr Lockhart?’ Mr Harbord asks.
‘The same,’ Aunt Alison replies. ‘I’m afraid it may be a duodenal ulcer.’ Both look as grave as you have to.
We all sit down, behind and in front of the headmaster’s desk, on which he places the broad tips of his white fingers. Against the smooth white flesh the wedding ring glistens more gold than gold.
‘And Mrs Harbord?’ Aunt Alison asks.
‘Wellish,’ he grumbles, and coughs, ‘But still with her sister at Kiama.’
Aunt Alison begins scuffling her behind around in her chair, as preparatory to business.
‘Ireen, I’m afraid,’ she says, ‘has had very little formal education.’
‘No worry,’ says Mr Harbord. ‘Backward children often make the big jump forward.’
He smiles what is intended as the big, encouraging smile. ‘What do you know, Reenie?’
Even as a joke it is too big a question. You can feel yourself blush like when Gilbert Horsfall asks you to explain the
‘I mean, what did they teach you over in Greece.’
‘Miss Adams taught me to read and write—always in English. She taught me the names of the English kings. I learned French and German from my father’s aunt. We read together Racine and Goethe. A little Shakespeare.’
‘What you’d call a practical start in life.’ Aunt Alison’s teeth have grown brown and jagged again behind the cracks in her purple lips.
‘What about Maths? Did they teach you your sums?’ Mr Harbord persists.
‘No-one was much good at mathematics. Mamma says she shed her materialistic Australian nature when she married with a Greek.’
I can feel my English growing worse as these people provoke me. Again I know my neck is blushing.
‘Oho, I like
!’ Aunt Alison cannot hold back a shriek. Mr Harbord’s laughter sounds rubbery, sticky, like a tyre on a bumpy road.
When they compose themselves, Mr Harbord says, ‘I hope we can put it back in you—some of the Australian character, I mean.’
He pushes back his chair and you all get up. You can tell this is the point at which something dreadful must happen.
We begin moving out of the headmaster’s room, the lunch in Mrs Bulpit’s case hardly thumping worse than your heart as Mr Harbord tells Aunt Alison ‘… start her at the beginning…’ he nods for your benefit.
‘I hope it won’t be bad for you, Reenie, by giving you the opportunity to shine, we don’t encourage that sort of thing.’
You want nothing more than to crawl away through the dark undergrowth of the garden over the warm moist leaf-mould, and perhaps re-join your fellow insects.
Where in all this zooming hive of horrible children is Gilbert Horsfall? Will he come in to defend you? Or will his acceptable blond nature be disgraced by association with the glistening black centipede admitted to this full classroom between the threatening bodies of Mr Harbord and Mrs Lockhart.
There is a tall thin additional threat in Miss Enderby standing in front of a blackboard on which a map has been drawn in coloured chalks. Mr Harbord, Mrs Lockhart, and Miss Enderby are all smiling too much for the child I no longer am.
Miss Enderby says, ‘Move over, Viva. Make room for Ireen.’
Viva doesn’t want to move, but does. She is dark, but not what you would call black, her white skin shows up what could be the beginnings of a moustache. She is frowning, perhaps afraid the others will blame her for having a foreigner next to her.
Miss Enderby has darted forward and takes hold of Mrs Bulpit’s case, which you have begun to love, it is something you know. She stands the case as though it is in some way a thing of shame under the table on the platform. Bending down, or standing straight, Miss Enderby reminds you of a hairpin. Her skin is a pale, shabby brown. Though her face is fairly young, it is raked with lines, her hair of no particular colour looks dusty from the grey in it. Blue eyes might look pretty if she wasn’t so worried.
Mr Harbord’s large teeth are on display. ‘Easy does it, Miss Enderby. We’ve got to get to know one another. Then it’ll be fine.’
‘That’s correct, Mr Harbord.’ Miss Enderby’s smaller teeth snicker back uneasily at her superior, and she rearranges the unused hankie stuck through a bangle on her thin brown forearm.
Standing to attention in front of the blackboard on which she has drawn the map of Australia festooned with signs of various kinds, the teacher could have been caught out at something. Mrs Lockhart, too, looks caught, and is glad to fade away with her embarrassment, piloted by the headmaster after flicking his head at Ireen Sklavos. It is meant to encourage you.