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Experiment 9

End Of An Afternoon

End Of An Afternoon

Gladys knew without drawing the curtains apart that the Ministry of Works truck was at the top of the hill. She had become accustomed to the 4.30 p.m. exhaust snarl, and as it gradually faded into the distance, she knew that the two men would already have started to walk down: one, straining a little because of an injured leg, the other with a lighter step, making conversation in a manner that makes it a compulsion to answer. Asking questions about the older man, drawing out the memories that were trivial in their context yet nevertheless important if only for the fact that there was a sympathetic listener and repressed thoughts were being put into words.

She took off her apron and hung it behind the kitchen door on a nail. The apron was faded and had hung there many times in the same position for the same lengths of time: overnight, lunch-times, and at four-thirty, when the truck arrived at the summit. page 35Hanging it up always pleasantly thrilled her—it was like shedding a well-worn pair of shoes and telling the shop assistant, "It doesn't matter about wrapping the old pair up."

As she opened the kitchen door, the late afternoon breeze filtered through her auburn hair. The fingers of the wind reminded her of the exercise done in every primary school—massaging the scalp—moving the skin gently to and fro in carefully timed revolutions. Schooldays were a long way away, but small relics of the past like that stay embroidered in one's mind.

She watched the men approach the gate. Wally unlatched the bolt with the ease of a decade farming the northern valley. His hands, brown as the soil he had lived with for so long, forced the latch with a skill that showed respect for the solid iron bolt but a casualness that was almost abandon. Gladys smiled to herself, for this was one of the few times of the day that the old image of Wally became vivid; the Wally that drove his Model A truck like a devil to the Young Farmer hops back in the war years, the Wally who had teased her about the limegreen frock she had spilt tea on at the church social.

She had laughed with him then because she found it so easy to be gay in his company. And when the coarse stubbles of his chin had first brushed her cheek she had feigned annoyance to see what he would do.

The door opened and as Wally entered, Gladys's eyes automatically flickered to his cheeks and she noticed that the stubble this afternoon was not the sharp, nuggety scrub of youth but the greying, defeated bristles that harden with age yet appear softer because of their colour.

"Tea on, Glad?" asked Wally. He threw his battered hat on to the couch, leaving a fine spray of cement dust in a trail behind it.

"Ready in a sec, dear. You just sit down there and put your leg up. I know you've had a hard day."

She hurried to the stove and lit the pale gas flame beneath the kettle. It had already boiled and in two or three minutes the singing of the whistle would announce the second stage of a ritual that the arrival of the truck began. After the tea had been drunk, he would read the morning paper that came through on the milk truck, and then roll a cigarette outside on the veranda, watching the sun set behind the range of Kahikatea forest that stretched a full morning's drive northwards.

"Don, are you going to have a cup, too?" She reached for a third cup as she asked, not because she anticipated his reply but page 36to avoid the steady, almost impudent stare of the younger man. It frightened her because she found that his gaze, as with his conversation, drew her thought away from the subject they were discussing and made her interest tend toward the speaker rather than what was spoken.

He was nothing unusual as far as young men went. Just another labourer stuck for a place to board who had heard "Wally's missus turns on a good feed." But at times she could feel his young eyes on her and the feeling of embarrassment was often superseded by a soothing wellbeing. Sometimes, she was more frightened still when she found that he had not been looking at all, and that she had imagined everything. The exaggerations of her own mind became a problem all their own.

"How's the leg, Wally?" said Don, taking a chair beside the table.

The older man didn't reply but turned to the racing page in the sports edition, folding each page carefully in its turn.

"Seems like Gay Merino's the nag to watch this week," said Wally.

"Horses don't interest me any more. 'Sides, I got a conviction, they won't let me on the course," replied Don.

"You been up to some trouble lad, 'fore you came up here?" Wally lowered the paper and screwed the corners of his eyes in the same fashion as he used to when following the huntaway as it raced into the evening sun.

"Drinkin' under age, that was part of the story. The barman didn't like me 'cause I was singing dirty limericks on top of the bar—he rang the johns and they stuck me in the cool room for the night."

A slight colouring tinted the older man's cheeks as he recalled the tinder and flint personalities of his own youth.

"Had a bit of a shindy meself once, overseas it was. You know how it is when you're in a different country—you don't like no-one and no-one likes you. Someone takes a swing at your mate so you plant him to sort of keep the old honour flyin'. You know what I mean, son."

Don nodded. He warmed to the older man who understood what went on in a young fellow's mind when a brawl involving friends began.

"People reckon you young jokers fight just for the hell of it. Well, they're wrong. Any man who likes fighting's a mug."

"Get a kick out of it sometimes, Wal," said Don, "Makes you page 37feel good to see the other chap sprawled out on the floor with his legs like hunks of driftwood."

Gladys poured a cup of tea for Don and placed it on the table beside him.' He smiled his thanks and helped himself to two teaspoons of sugar.

"I wish you men would talk about something better than fighting," she said. She paused for a second to see whether Don had anything to add, but when he turned to listen to Wally she moved back to the stove where she had placed her own cup.

"That's another thing," said Wally, letting the newspaper fall to the floor. "I was thinking the other day about these here teddyboy jokers—the ones with the long hair."

"Stick 'em in the army—best place for 'em," said Don. He sipped his tea but it scalded his lips and he made a show of mock anguish in Gladys's direction.

"When I was in the army we were all the same age as you blokes now. We didn't have any cars to tear round in but we had jeeps, and boy did we give them a thrashing. And we had a few prangs, some of them real beauts. I reckon we were just as bad, probably worse than you blokes today. If we'd had the cars we would have done the same crook things in them."

Don sipped his tea again. He had never given the matter much thought, but perhaps the old man had something there. What the hell, it didn't make any difference either way. The pay was good out at the job, that was all there was worth doing any head work about.

They sat in silence while the weather report and then the news came over, both read by familiar voices, both voices that had become part of their lives.

"You get to thinkin' you know these jokers like a mate at work," said Wally after the news had finished.

Gladys and Don remained silent—Gladys because the over-bright voice of the announcer clashed with the drab picture the dinner dishes presented and Don because he was wondering about the picture theatre in the town that night.

"Think I'll hit the sack for a while," said Wally, stretching his arms and moving slowly to the door. "Can't put much strain on the old peg these days. By the Way Glad, a few of the boys are droppin' round later on to have a yak."

He walked across the room, limping slightly to one side. Gladys was annoyed, but she wasn't quite sure why. She took a cigarette from a packet buried in her knitting-bag.

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"You don't usually smoke," Don said. "Bad habit."

She concentrated on directing the smoke in a clearly defined channel across the space separating them.

"Why do only smoke when Wal's gone to bed?" asked Don.

"I smoke when I feel like it," replied Gladys. She felt her cheeks reddening beneath the amused scorn in his eyes.

"You wouldn't say that if he were in the room," she said.

"I was only asking—no need to fly off you handle."

Gladys collected the unwashed cups and saucers and turned on the hot tap above the sink.

"I'll give you a hand if you like." Don stood up and took a tea-towel from the rack.

"There's no need to—I can manage."

She shook a handful of soap powder into the sink, watching Don's reflection in the window that faced out on the back yard. As his face merged with the wood pile, she breathed gently on the glass and spread the grey haze in a small circle so that she could avoid his stare. Why on earth doesn't he sit down, or read the paper, or do something else? His standing behind her made her unsure of her handling and she started as she dropped a plate to the bottom of the sink.

Don stepped closer to her. She slowed the scrubbing motion of her hands which had repeated the same action at the same sink every day since she and Wally had moved into the house.

"Something's burning—I can smell it," said Don.

Gladys turned, drying her hands on her apron.

"Is there? Where?"

He put back his head and laughed.

"Over there. On the bench."

Gladys knew she should have expressed her anger there and then for his trickery, but somehow she could not arouse the anger that at any other time might have set of a chain reaction of abuse. Instead, she felt humble and a trifle reassured that there was someone who had bothered to draw Gladys Newton, the wife of a "compo king", into his own world.

She lifted the smouldering skeleton of her cigarette off the bench, rubbing the black stain where it had burned into the grain.

"I like watching you smoke, Gladys," he said. It was the first time he had called her by her Christian name since he had boarded with them, and she could tell that this novelty was as much a surprise to him as it was to her.

"It makes you look like a young sheila. 'Cept you don't smoke it right. Tip the end up, then it won't make your fingers go brown."

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He spoke the short sentences not in any sense with a clipped accent but with a forcefulness that was unusual in a boy of his age. I suppose he's only twenty, thought Gladys, but then it was hard to tell with some of the men that worked with the Ministry. Working on the roads could age a lad in six months, and the drinking parties in the camps at night did not help this. She could not imagine Don drinking heavily, though she knew that he had been seen drunk in town some Saturday afternoons.

"I'm going to the flicks tonight," he said casually. "Should be good, there's a war film on—plenty of shooting and all that."

She drew nervously on the cigarette and thought of the dishes behind, not because they urgently needed washing but because it was wrong to be talking like this.

"I reckon they're beaut—the old man used to say he shot ten Japs in one day—pretty good, wasn't it?" Don's question had become almost a plea, the plea of a child who needs to be reassured that the passage light will be left on when the family has gone to bed.

"He didn't look too brave when Mum sued him for maintenance, though," he laughed. "You should have seen his face, like a frightened rabbit it was."

Don sat on the couch, leaning back on the cushion.

"No, he wasn't no hero, that's one thing for certain."

Gladys moved awkwardly to the couch and hesitated while Don shifted to make room for her. As she sat, she tried to keep her legs tucked beneath her; it was several years since she had been able to cross them with pride as Wally's mates twitched with embarrassment. That used to annoy him, but now she doubted whether he even remembered. Strange that she should, yet a woman was more conscious of those minor pastimes.

"Got two tickets," said Don. As he spoke, his hand jerked, spilling some of the tea on his trouser leg. He laughed carelessly, draining the tea that had flowed into the saucer.

"I always have been clumsy."

Gladys was about to reach for the tea-towel but a sudden involuntary flinch distracted her. She knew what it was, yet at the same time she could not explain how it was. The feeling of having been in the same situation before occurs at the most unexpected moments, striking a person with the jarring force that a newsreel flashback can effect.

She took the towel and noticed that the compulsion to dry Don's knee had her in a grip more powerful than she had realized was possible.

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"Stop dithering. Here, give it to me." Don's voice had raised, with a hint of annoyance. She handed him the towel and took her seat beside him again.

"Cup was too full, couldn't be helped." His voice did not sound as young then, the element of irritability usually confined to the old striking a sharper note.

"It's unusual for Wally to have cobbers visiting on a Friday night," she said, for want of anything better to say.

"Probably just wants a chat—he hasn't said much all day," replied Don. "Took time off this morning to see the quack, but he hasn't said nothing to the boys."

The accident had happened six months ago when Wally had been mustering the western range; after the horse had thrown him, Doctor East had said what with the shrapnel wounds and then the leg broken, he would be lucky if he ever worked again in his life. In fact, he was fortunate they found him at all, after lying helpless for a day and a half. He had managed to get a light job working for the Ministry but the farm had gradually fallen apart through neglect, as a stranded dinghy on a sand-bar slowly and inevitably sinks below the water.

Gladys took the paper and pretended to be studying the women's page. As she skipped over first the engagement announcements and then the recipes, her mind toyed with the possibility of going to the pictures with Don. After all, every one in town knew that he was living with the Newtons, and any gossip tidal wave would soon expend itself on the beaten rock of public opinion. Besides, she hadn't had a night out for months, especially since Wal's leg had been playing up.

She tilted her head sideways to read the headline in the top left-hand corner of the page; from the corner of her eye she could see Don counting the pound notes in his wallet, as bank clerks did, flicking their corners loudly; and as Wal had done when he was courting her, to create an impression. But then, money had been worth more during the depression and even being able to have money to count was unusual.

Don shifted uncomfortably and caught her eye for a second, then looked away. Gladys knew he was about to speak, but would he have the nerve, she wondered. She hoped he would, even though she didn't have an answer prepared. And there was still Wal. He had said mates were coming round to visit him, so she wouldn't be able to wait until he had gone to sleep. She could ask him, but he would know immediately.

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She stroked the folded apron with her fingertips and wondered whether she would wear the frock if she were to go to town with the younger man. Why on earth should he care for her when there were so many tight-skirted girls waiting every Friday night in the back stalls for the farm boys to sit beside them? They could be heard, moving furtively like mice in a darkened room, necking till five minutes before the end of the film when they would tiptoe out so that the older people in the audience could not recognize them.

Gladys smiled bitterly. Those young tarts were as cheap as the street sluts of Christchurch in the black protection of the theatre, but once outside they would walk with the arrogant pride of the well-to-do which they would never be. It wasn't fair that her own generation had to put up with so much, make their own entertainment, and then be forced to witness the vulgar abandon of post-war youth.

"Mrs Newton, would you like . . . Wal . . . d'you think Wal would mind if you came with me?" asked Don.

Gladys did not answer immediately, but remembered the shy approach of the first boy that had stared at the toes of his shoes when he asked her out to that Bible Class dance. Some say a girl cherishes the memory of her first lover, but what they omit is that the image recurs right through to middle age and can be reconjured by a line or two of simple speech or the awkward smile of a wandering youth. And the only weapons to fight it are the solitary walks through the household; here, inspecting a rose garden that has been tended through the most difficult years; there, a sandpit where the children played before they grew up and left for the cities.

"I really don't know what Wal would say, Don."

The kettle simmered in a subdued roar.

"But would you like to come?" he said. "There'll still be plenty of good seats left."

The limegreen frock was at the bottom of the trunk next to the dressing table in the bedroom, and, if examined closely, the stain where Wally had spilt the tea was still faintly visible. It was the only frock in which she could look young again, a frock that should have been worn more often.

"No, I must catch up with my mending."

"Ask Wally, see what he says," said Don, running a comb through his hair, deftly flicking each tuft into place after dipping the comb into a cup of water. Gladys watched the water trickle page 42down the back of his neck and overflow on his collar, like a stream of tears.

"All right Don, I'll see what he says. But I shouldn't have any late night, you know."

She hurried from the room and talked quietly with Wally for several minutes before coming back into the kitchen.

"We can go," she said. "I'll go and put my limegreen frock on—Wal says you can start up the Ford." Gladys felt the words falling from her mouth monotonously, but then, what else was there to say?

While Don put on a white shirt and tie, she changed into the frock. She could hear his clumsy movements as he searched through the drawers for a clean pair of socks, and when there was a long pause of silence punctuated by heavy breathing, she knew that he was either combing his hair again or earnestly removing the pimples from his chin.

The frock was difficult to put on and did not slip over her trunk quite so easily as it had on the last occasion it had been worn. She took a pair of nail scissors from a dresser drawer and snipped two of the darts free; Wally turned over in bed at the sound and took the agricultural newsletter from in front of his face.

"What you wearin' that old rag for, Glad?" he said.

She noticed that under the reading lamp the lines of his forehead were more prominent, like the marks the children used to carve across the hardened, dry surface of the sandpit with an old kitchen fork.

"Mrs East and Mrs Hodgkins all wear frocks when they go to the pictures, Wal."

He grunted.

"Leave the porch light on," he said. "Can't have you trippin' on the doorstep and breakin' your neck when you comes in."

She brushed her cheeks lightly with a powder puff and removed the last specks of dust that were clinging to her skin. She heard Don shut the back door and start up the car, revving the engine quickly at first and then letting it idle as he adjusted the choke and the advance-retard of the spark.

Don sounded the horn, but she stood on the doorstep, peering into the night across the tangled paddocks of gorse and broom. A procession of lights was moving closer along the rutted track towards the house; there were about ten cars, she guessed, bumper to bumper and jerking crazily as the wheels struck the small rocks that lined the track from the gate to the rotting cowshed.

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The flashing headlamps sprayed the fields with light and glowed like the eyes of a restless herd of cattle when a hurricane lamp is carried among them. Gladys remained in the doorway until the last car had pulled into the yard before clambering into the Ford beside Don.

"We'll be late, Mrs Newton," he said. "Reckon it's about time we went off."

Gladys made no reply but watched the men enter the house, one by one. There was Harry West, Nick Saunders and the man in the lemon squeezer, Bill Hodgkins. The faces of the other men were obscured, but she could see the glint of the bottles tucked under their arms.

"What do you think they're going to do?" She spoke her thoughts aloud, and it was as if they had been spoken by a third person in the cab.

"Don, tell me."

The boy shifted uncomfortably in the driver's seat and fumbled for a cigarette. He did not speak, but stared straight out into the night as though he had suddenly observed something that had arrested his gaze.

They sat without talking while the engine idled slowly, until, after a few dying gasps, it stopped altogether, wheezing the last grey clouds of exhaust fumes into the night.

The boy told her then.

Slowly, at first, as if it were a competition result, and then quickening, before he could change his mind about telling her. As he neared the end, the sentences became abrupt and almost inaudible.

And when he had finished he wished that he hadn't told her; he swore at himself beneath his breath, calmly and methodically.

Gladys opened the truck door and stepped outside on to the damp grass, the wet blades licking hungrily at her ankles as she moved toward the house.

Within a month, the doctor had said. The leg has to come off within a month. She repeated the words to herself, as though their meaning could be changed with a different stress. Then she tried to think about it without using words. Was it possible, she wondered, meaning without words?

Perhaps, thought Gladys, it were best that Wally should be alone to tell the Easts, the Saunders, the Hodgkins and everyone else, and yes even the milkies and the kids, that the Newtons were finished farming the Northern Valley for good and for ever.

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Perhaps he would even tell them that the missus is going into town tonight with the young fellow, the good-looking one from the city who can talk to a bloke at work and make him laugh, yet dream by himself on the trip home and you know he could be sad.

Gladys passed along the passageway and could see through the living-room doorway that Wally and the men were sitting around the fire in a tightly-knit group. The first bottle had been opened, but she knew they wouldn't want her there; that was how it had been planned. She tiptoed past to the bedroom and undressed, neatly folding the limegreen frock before tucking it to the bottom of the trunk, and covering it with a sheet of newspaper to keep the moths away.

The whine of the Ford as it struggled to the top of the hill and headed for town could be heard quite clearly in the night, as clearly as if it were the four-thirty truck from the Ministry of Works bringing the men home.

And it was like the end of an afternoon, and the beginning of another.