Authors: Patrick White
Classmates jab their elbows into the ribs of two boys at the back. From the look of them they could be middle Lockharts embarrassed by their mother’s showing up at school. Avoid these Lockharts.
Will Gilbert Horsfall’s voice never break through the partition separating you from other cells in this thundering hive?
Miss Enderby stands a moment, head bowed, above her table, collecting her scattered thoughts, then flicks back her dusty hair, the not quite pretty blue eyes stare or glare at the distance.
‘As Captain Cook sailed up what we know today as the coast of Queensland, he sighted a group of mountains singular in shape. He called them…’ as the eyes withdraw from the distance of history they focus on a present target ‘… What did he call them—Viva Jenkins? Tell us, please, in case Ireen Sklavos hasn’t heard.’
Viva Jenkins looks livid. You can feel yourself turning green on being singled out in front of all these children. Viva will blame you for this moment forever.
‘The Glasshouse Mountains,’ Viva Jenkins answers coldly quickly through thinned lips.
Miss Enderby’s glass stare looks appeased. She sails on up the coast to wherever the blue arrows will take her, past Aegean rocks in a tropical sea. Yellow tracks leading into the interior widen into human footprints. The sun hangs heavier than August on Aiyina. The classroom is rocking by now with the swell of the sea. Hidden in the mangroves blacks are waiting to spear the landing parties of explorers. [Find out about these mangroves].
You look at Viva, this black moustache against the white skin. It is you who are the black. Her lips, her eyelashes, her fringe all hate you. She takes this pin and sticks it into your foreign arm. You both sit staring at the pinprick of blood which swells which overflows. Black speared by white amongst the treacherous mangroves.
You cannot prevent your eyes overflowing. Viva is a glassy blur. The black mangrove fringe. Something of Viva herself is ebbing away with your blood. Her white forehead is swelling. Her thin lips begin to glow as though from the wound she has opened in your flesh.
Miss Enderby’s lesson is foundering somewhere in the islands to the north. Nobody here, Miss Enderby included, knows about islands.
She arranges her chalks, her pencils, and a squelchy yellow rubber on the table. A chalk-saturated duster makes her cough.
Since the lesson is over everyone comes spilling out from behind the desks, bumping, slamming, feet grating. Screams and babbles break from mouths as they jostle anybody in their way. The two freckly Lockharts jump and kick sideways like frisky horses. There is no question of their knowing a cousin even though they may know about her. All to the good.
Miss Enderby remembers, and picks up the offending case from beneath her table. ‘Viva, look after Ireen—show her the ropes—where to leave her case. Cases, Ireen, are not brought into class.’
She has done her duty. In the purple brown mash of her face, perspiring white circles of skin make the eyes look more remote than ever.
Viva, it seems, is more the outcast than Ireen as all the children tear past.
‘Take your case,’ Viva mumps through a heavy disgust as thick as phlegm. ‘This is when we eat lunch.’
‘Yair. You arrived late, didn’t you?’
In the circumstances Viva even seems to think that what should be a virtue amounts to a sin.
Under the fronds of this tree with its little pink berries you look at each other munching lunches. Viva may have forgotten the blood that flowed in class. Munching helps. Mrs Bulpit has provided something pale that tastes of sawdust between slices of soggy bread. There is a wizened apple. Viva has much the same. Her teeth bulge with doughy bread. She rejects crusts.
‘Got chocolate for school lunch?’
You can’t care.
Viva is soon chocolate-lipped. ‘You see these two girls coming over? They’re reffoes. They’ll try anything on. Got all the cheek in the world.’
The girls are sort of smiling. Their blenched nostrils are scenting chocolate. One girl’s ears are pierced for little golden rings. But the second girl’s lobes have real earrings suspended from them, little coral stones trembling like the berries of the shade tree under which we have been eating our lunch. This girl wears an actual ring on her plump finger, with a stone in it.
She grins and says, ‘You’re eating chocolate. My uncle manufactures…’
‘Okay, Lily,’ Viva warns, clamping her teeth on a last piece, ‘we know about your uncle’s chocolate.’
‘Ireen can’t if she is
‘I do, don’t I? And Reenie’s my friend.’
The two girls do not seem discouraged. You wish you were as tough. Not even Viva is as tough as Lily and her friend, or perhaps it is her sister.
The girl with the little gold rings in her ears becomes very confidential as she asks, ‘Are you one of us, Ireen—are you?’
‘How?’ It is once more exhausting, even frightening.
The two girls look at you so closely, it is like some Greeks trying to find out whether you are red or black, Mamma always says when it comes to politics it is best to keep your mouth shut.
‘Piss off, Eva—Lily, she’s not,’ Viva hisses through a spray of chocolate.
Eva and Lily are not put out. As they walk away they are wreathed in disbelieving smiles and pity for one who is Viva Jenkins’ friend.
‘Bloody reffoes!’ Viva grumbles.
She starts to wipe her mouth with her hand but thinks better and takes out a tissue which she drops afterwards on the asphalt which tree roots have lifted up.
‘If you want the toilet, Reenie, the GIRLS is down there, but the boys can give trouble.’
‘Thank you. I think I will hold out.’
Not long after the bell rings.
‘This is Maths. You don’t have to worry. It isn’t any trouble. Nobody bothers about Mr Manley. He’s a poof, but Elsie Chapman has a crush on him for something to do.’
As we go up towards the classroom, Viva turns, as though no blood has flowed between us. ‘I’m glad you’re my friend, Ireen.’ She is heavy as ever. Perhaps she has no other friends. Mr Manley is short, plump, a puffy white. His thick-lensed spectacles might be helping him not to see the faces he is addressing. His hands fly about like big velvety butterflies battering themselves against the blackboard on which he is demonstrating weights and measures. Boys laugh and aim paper darts, one of them hits the blackboard just missing Mr Manley’s hand as he scribbles elegant figures in chalk. He does not seem to notice. The girls hold conversations, share secrets. Only Elsie Chapman attends. She is sitting chin-on-hand watching Mr Manley’s display. No sign of Lily and Eva, they are surely cleverer and in a higher class.
All these weights and measures bring back the scales in Aunt Cleonaki’s kitchen with Evthymia weighing out flour for
. Her peasant hands are as rough red and stiff as Mr Manley’s palpitating butterflies are white and delicate. There is the same sadness in flour and chalkdust rising through the murmur of an afternoon. Will it never be over?
‘When you come to my place,’ Viva whispers, ‘I’ll show you something my father brought with him from Patagonia. He got it in Brazil.’
Oh, no! Brazil, Patagonia yes, but never Viva’s place. The only escape is through Gilbert Horsfall who will probably never come.
* * *
It is over. The homework is set. How will you, who are homeless, do any homework and what? You have wet yourself a little, will they see, down the left leg.
Elsie Chapman lays a flower, or part of one, on Mr Manley’s desk. He is afraid she does not mean it. His soft damp parti-moustache is flopping up and down as he laughs his disbelief.
‘They’re a couple of silly sooks. She does it at every lesson. She snitches them over the fences on her way to school. Doesn’t mean it, of course—not with Lionel Manley. Showed her pussy to Gil Horsfall in break.’
So it is over. Someone has slammed the lid of a desk.
‘I have to get back to where I am living. They—my aunt, Mrs Lockhart—didn’t tell me what to do.’
‘You’re in Cameron Street, aren’t you? Mumma and Essie Bulpit are mates. Lockharts live in the opposite direction. Don’t worry we’ll take the bus, I’ll show you where to get off, Reenie.’
It is too awful, and at the bus stop with our cases. How does Gilbert Horsfall get back?
‘Where does Elsie Chapman live?’
‘Balmoral way,’ Viva waves. ‘Her father mostly fetches her in the vehicle. They’re an influential family. He has a refrigeration business. Gee,’ she says, ‘Reenie, I’m so glad to have you for my friend.’
If only the Australian asphalt would receive yourmelting flesh, amongst the squashed fruit from this great hairy tree.
‘I have no money for any bus.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll give you the lend of the fare.’
There is no escaping. We are so close, our cases clash and almost tangle together in skeins of twisting soft chocolate. There is a dog’s shit lying on the kerb.
Boys’ heavy shoes are cracking the pavement open. Their voices cackle, something about ‘… stone the tarts…’
‘Don’t worry, they’ll cool down,’ Viva hisses, she turns her back.
Two older, spotty boys, tufts of hair amongst the skin and—Gilbert Horsfall. Gilbert doesn’t see—he has never seen you. He cackles worse than his spotted friends, grinds his shoes into the pavement and bashes the treetrunk with his case. Will Aunt Ally at the last moment rescue you from the heavy web in which you are netted—of Viva Jenkins, the tufted boys, and Gilbert Horsfall.
Nothing happens for the best. The boys shove past the girls and sit at the back of the bus. Viva pushes you into a seat near the driver.
‘How’s my little lady?’ the driver asks.
‘Good, thanks. This is my friend Ireen. She’s a Greek just arrived from Greece.’
‘Waddaya know!’ The driver can’t help but look sideways from dragging on the wheel, steering the bus round a difficult corner.
The boys at the back crow and fall about. Some of the corners are close shaves, though never as close as in Greece.
You feel you may be sick, not from the bus, but from everything, including Viva’s serge tunic.
She is so helpful. ‘This is it, Reenie—the stop for Cameron. Keep straight on down. I’ll keep a look out in the morning.’
Her chocolate hands are unwilling to let you go. What if she succeeds in keeping you there and you have to face her Mumma?
But another body is pushing past. It is hard and wiry, the shoe hurts that kicks you just above the heel.
Gilbert Horsfall’s face is ugly as he waves back at his two friends. Ought to wave back at Viva, but you can’t. Ought to feel grateful.
When the bus has disappeared, Gilbert turns. ‘How’re you making out, Irene?’ He is talking the language you understand, his face is the one you recognise as Gilbert Horsfall’s.
‘I don’t know.’ Mustn’t cry.
You walk a bit together. He makes no attempt to draw away. A wrist slithers against yours, which makes it worse—and beautiful.
‘I hate it!’ You could have been sticking a pin into Viva Jenkins’ slab of an arm.
‘Yes,’ he agrees, but only vaguely. ‘Feel better when you get a load of Ma Bulpit’s bread and dripping inside you.’
She was out when you arrived. ‘Scoop it out for ourselves, specially the brown bit underneath. It’s delicious.’
‘Mrs Bulpit’s name is Essie. Viva told me.’
You go out together into the garden, which at this hour seems to be hanging above the water, floating without support from the precipice.
* * *
Essie Bulpit has turned out the ‘lovely room’ she has for you.
‘Don’t know how I got through it—considering…’
She breaks wind as she opens the door and leads the way.
‘… considering the state of my health … might have taken on more than I can cope with…’
The ‘lovely room’ is still more or less a box room.
‘Of course you’ll appreciate, Ireen, I’ve got to keep my own belongings
—in me own home.’
Essie Bulpit’s pastry figure, and against the opposite wall the black dressmaker’s dummy make a pair of caryatids guarding these sacred objects.
She burps again, ‘Ah, dear’ and swallows ‘Mrs Haggerty down the road’s got it—well, I’m not going to dwell on it. Can’t allow black thoughts, can we? Won’t help the
.’ She laughs, and her teeth clack together.
At the far end of the room Essie has arranged a narrow bed, or ottoman. There is also a small chest, a table and chair.
‘… do your homework—write home to your mum…’
More important are the two windows through which the light from the water floats upward through the branches of the dark trees.
Till thankfulness is invaded by the tanks and armoured cars of fear. ‘Where is Gilbert?’
‘Expect he’s started on his homework. And you ought to get busy with yours.’
‘Don’t know what it is.’
She sighs in going out. ‘Ah dear—don’t expect it matters—all that much.’
Since this morning Mrs Bulpit’s eyes don’t seem to have the world in their sights.
* * *
This room she has got ready for you has started to become yours, not from any effort on your part, but simply by your being there. This could be something to remember, to use as a consolation for being anywhere at all. Whether in this floating half-light or later when you have undressed (a nightie makes you feel sadder) and got into bed. Bed is no more than this narrow padded box disguised as one. The brown wartime electricity will not be more comfort than darkness. Dreams must grow out of either. A black caryatid on the march is stuck with pins from which sawdust flows instead of blood. Miss Enderby expecting homework from the homeless. Mr Manley does not expect anyway not Elsie’s flower ringed with fur. You dare go down because you must to the GIRLS where there are no girls only boys Gil is tearing off your clothes he is wearing his ugly school face his voice his laughter that of the others surrounding us. They are laughing at this baby’s wrinkle to which you have shrunk from what was once a mouth down between the brown spots through the hole where you parted with Mamma long before the ship sailed down to the source of shame welling out first as a warm trickle then as the deafening cold roar of the cistern inside the wooden shed.