The Godwits Fly
Chapter Thirteen — Road Roundabout
Timothy fully intended to catch the train at Raupo. But the mists were so fine, the milky gossamer denied to all heat. Pools of mist lay knee-deep on the valleys, and into them the cows waded, discovering there some immense, mild satisfaction which made them sink prostrate, only their slow eyes and grazing jaws in motion. The valley looked like a white mirage. Timothy laughed, and tried to halloo the dream-cows into action, but they gazed through and over him, Poppaeas in the milk-bath, too torpid to consider men at all.
Every stem of grass, pink where it caught the turn of light, was a wire threading tourmaline beads, some as small as dust, the big ones ready to break and run down like tears. A spider shambled out of his trap-door. Over the few paling fences hung the Maoris’ bundles of tow, cut when the flax was stiff and green, bleaching now to biscuit-colour. From a shack doorway old Kahu, her breasts immense under a bright orange jersey, gave him ‘Tena koe.’ She wore a man's plug hat, and had had children by so many whites that they all looked alike to her, big kids.
Timothy hesitated; suddenly and strongly, he didn't want to board his train, which was already in the station. The string of sheep-trucks packed with bodies like dirty fawn rugs, bodies alive and bleating until they reached the slaughter-yards and were reduced to a black jelly of blood, joints on iron hooks, raw hides and a stink of fertilizer, decided him. Beneath his belt he swerved back to Shaw and vegetarianism.
He passed the station and struck north. High drifts of aniseed-smelling fennel companioned him. The hills were bare except in gullies still rife with bush, disappointing unless one stared at it long enough for its tangled sinews and strange body to take shape. Knolls planted with circlets of pines or English trees always meant a homestead, built in the rectangular mode of the commonplace which ran through the whole of the country's architecture. Red tin roof, wooden walls, a tank, sometimes a rusty watermill. At one of these square-jowled little places, he drank raw milk, watched by the golden eyes of a collie, and page 143 the black ones of a woman whose husband was out turning the cows into paddock. Suddenly she pressed her hard lips against Timothy's.
‘I hate him, see? With him, it's all just habit, regular as clockwork.’ She put her hand to her throat, staring in angry defiance at her landscape, where a few high-headed old cabbage palms lifted their thick cream bushels of flowers, looking peculiarly untamed in this air, which carried no dust to clog them. Under her apron her breasts were firm as winter pears. She said without any sort of importuning or apology, ‘He'll be gone an hour, see?’ and Timothy said quickly, ‘All right.’ The little bed-chamber looked extraordinarily pathetic, lifelike but not alive; it had a flowery paper and clean sticks of furniture, but a heavy, misshapen hand was over it all. The farmwife clung to Timothy, saying, ‘I hope I have a baby of you. Oh, I do hope that.’ Looking at the discolorations under her eyes and chin, dark patches which meant that her youth was just taking grief to itself, he could not voice his old haunting superstition, ‘I don't think I'll ever have a son.’ Instead, he thought only of the farmwife, until he was shaken by a kind of ecstasy which made the room's shadow, the pear-brown face and throat seem very lovely and confused. She looked at him with luminous eyes. Already in the chambers of her mind she was transmuting him into memory, a secret from which she could defy her husband. A sunbeam played rippling white on the door, and he noticed how modest the farm-wife was, drawing the quilt up while she straightened her clothing. When he was going, she said, ‘You'll be wanting your hat, young man,’ and laughed at him. ‘I wouldn't mind staying with you for keeps, Mother,’ he said. As he went out by the front door, whose broken glass was stopped up with paper, he could hear the thin rhythmic clanking of pails, and wondered if another Timothy would hear it some morning, see against solid weight of sky the fantastic gestures of the cabbage-palms. He didn't feel any compunction at the idea; it was good country to be born in, and if that wife had a son, she'd fight for him like a tigress.
Birds broke away from under his feet, scuttling quail, skylarks from England, then the hedge-birds, living on berries and the sweet hard hearts of the palms. In the swamp bits, where the water was steel around quivering green isles of flax, pukeko stalked, old Red-NoseHiding-In-The-Raupo, plumage indigo, bill scarlet. All the time Timothy's feet were touching what he liked best, earth stripped of pavement. Smooth curves of hill passed in and out of him; sometimes he felt a violent desire to go back to the farmwife and try her again with a fiercer argument, sometimes there was nothing in his face but page 144 sheets of marsh water glittering, plumes of toi-toi, the little hills colliding at the back of his mind.
In ten days he had reached his father's house, and found it unchanged, the macrocarpas drawing their big sleepy circles around it, its old people moving through the dream—his father, who loved Dickens so much, and used to cry over Little Dorrit, his mother light as a feather and crinkled up in sweetness, but stone deaf. He could swing her up and play with her like a doll, but it seemed strange that she would never hear him now if he cried out in the night.
This old place, a very early farmhouse, oppressed Timothy and yet endeared itself to him by the hum of its quietude. He wrote to Eliza of the bees making summer in the macrocarpas; that reminded him that he should have been in Wellington, taking Eliza over the hills, perhaps asking her to marry him. He started with his formula, ‘I'd marry her if she were going to have a baby,’ then reminded himself that he was keeping Eliza white for an ideal, so there was no chance of a baby. Her ghost made him restless. Always woman comes with an importuning face.… He wished she could play a good hard game of tennis, and laugh as she knocked the ball back across the nets.
His brother Laurie, who had been his hero for strength and lack of bodily fear, seemed now to have grown into the rooting and quietude of the place. Men as trees walking, men as trees forgetting to walk.… The dusty mobs of sheep were his inheritance, the great bull tossing his sullen head in the pastures, and all things crying quick and clean inside the drawn circle of the macrocarpas. When Timothy said he had a girl, Laurie put down his newspaper and said, not boastingly, but as he might speak of beehives or ewes, ‘Well, I've got the pick of the place. Some of them aren't bad.’
‘I might marry her,’ said Timothy. Laurie looked at him with his faintly mocking smile.
‘Marriage? That's bad, boy, and you so young.’
‘A man has to settle down some time. How else did all this grow? Our mother came here by bullock-wagon, when she was eighteen.’
‘All girls aren't alike. And I want a family.’
‘I had a girl three years back, but there wasn't anything said about marriage. Come to Auckland for a good time first. We'll go to the Military Ball. I haven't seen a dance in months, outside of the local hops, and they're rough as bags.’ He got up, flexing his arms before the crackled mirror that was painted with a swan. He didn't seem the same Laurie who had dragged Timothy home on the plough, over acres of black new-turned soil, with the horses blowing blue from page 145 their big nostrils, and the smell of gorse warmer than its colour. He took things very easily, smiling out of amber eyes. Somehow he made Timothy think of the mirage-cows in the bath of milk at Raupo. Easily Laurie might have been their bull, their king. Even the thickness of his neck had in it the calm satisfaction of a pride and force that have never been successfully challenged.
There was a patch of white clay down by a stream. Timothy went out and flung himself down among the gorse-roots. He puddled the clay, then, when it was soft and pliable, started working on it, making a figurine six inches high. Her smooth round limbs drew out of the shapelessness, then her body, and the taut muscles of the throat. He wanted her to be strong in throat and chin, an answer to his brother's strength. But when he had got her so far, the tiny arms would take no attitude but that of beseeching. All the women's faces that had looked up at him demanded her face; not one of them but asked. He stroked the dim clay tresses, modelled the forehead boldly, turned her chin from oval to the shape of Britomart's shield. It was no use; she wouldn't stand alone, his clay woman. Her lips were too sensitive, even the reserve of the calmly moulded lids in the little caverns beneath her brows spoke of hunger pressed down and running over. Everything about her told unfair fight. He had made her strong, given her good limbs and shoulders and forehead, but only to lose. ‘God went wrong somewhere,’ he said, and dropped his clay woman into the muddied pool beneath the gorse-bushes. The moment she had gone, he wished her back again, but the yellow waters had washed her into mud. Green beetles thudded softly about him as he went back to the farmhouse.
They went to Auckland on Laurie's motor-cycle, Timothy riding pillion, wildly excited so long as the rushing air parted against his face. Laurie had a captaincy in the military reserves, and danced in uniform. Timothy found himself slowly circling the corners of the ballroom with a red-haired girl in his arms; slowly, a little vapidly, exploring the walks of a garden where lilies floated, pearl as the Taj Mahal. The red girl's mouth was discontented, heavily painted. She said, ‘What a crowd of oafs. God save the King, rule Britannia, and climb with spurs up your partner's underwear. Old General Tysnoe and the jellies. They wobble, and he glares. Or is it the other way about? Honestly, can you think of anything more inane?”
‘Don't you like soldiers?’
‘When you're dying for me, you're too lovely. In time of peace, oh, my God.’
‘Were you always so blase?’
‘From my mother's womb, I think. They sent me to Europe last page 146 year. They wanted me to marry, but I didn't see anything. Now the world looks so small. Do you care for vice?’
‘I don't believe I've ever really tried it.’
‘I think I'll go in for it; die at thirty-five, with an epitaph in scarlet letters. They could use neon lighting.’
After he had kissed the red girl, Timothy thought possibly that was more inane than the dancing; she hadn't the lonely craving of poor little Shelagh, or the honest, angry desires of the farmwife, only a sickly slim body that had to be pepped up before it could enjoy, and then wailed that it hadn't enjoyed, after all. Only a recognition of sex as one way out of things likely to tax the imagination. No guts. A moment before, she had been hard and taut. Now she was limp—her answer to everything. If it were a law of nature, Timothy didn't like it. He stared at the pearl lilies, and didn't like those, either. He would have enjoyed swishing their heads off, as he used to cut off the dark heads of soldier-grass when he was a child. Laurie came out of the ballroom, with a small, scrupulous cough, though really he was quite indifferent to the red girl's feelings, and she to his. He said to Timothy, ‘The Murchisons are taking us on to Anakawa.’
‘What's Anakawa?’ asked the red girl. Laurie smiled at her.
‘A cave. Haunt, perhaps, of the ancient caveman. Want to come along?’
Timothy could feel the cord of her listless desire straining away from him and towards Laurie. He opened his arms and let her go. Just because Laurie was older, had serene yellow eyes. She was wasting her time: Laurie wouldn't waste his.
In the evening of the next day they were camped at Anakawa with the Murchisons, a family of the ex-squattocracy, the two women brown and able with conversation, the men rather apt to dwell on the subject of rabbits, but very dependable when it came to getting the big, burly buffalo bullocks, their only means of transportation, down the cliff-face. Outside the cave's mouth dropped the myriad-stamened flowers of the pohutukawa, crimson and live coral. Beyond that, beyond shore, a vast surf repeated shingly roars for all eternity, rushing up the sand with pebbles and swirling driftwood in its throat, to spew them out high on the beach.
The Murchisons, having bathed in very proper neck-to-knee costumes, baked mussels in the ashes, turned on a portable gramophone, and lay down to dream. They had christened Anakawa ‘the cave of a thousand faces’. Timothy tried mentally to outline each face, dark and clear, mostly wicked, as behoved a place where the white man disputed page 147 occupancy with the thundering surf, and with bleached Maori skulls trundled into the darker passages long ago.
He could not sleep. At midnight he slipped out past the smouldering fire of driftwood, and stood watching a silver and ebony sea. Great fans of foam opened on its bosom. It was more than a challenge, it was a warning. He walked down the sands, and threw off his clothing at the edge of the surf. Naked and in the sea, he felt his feet swept from under him. Currents pulled him, like the lingering hands of very cold, very powerful people. The Maoris had tales of devils with great houses under the sea, houses whose every chink was stopped up against the light. The thousand faces of Anakawa danced, and his head went under. Suddenly he felt a grasp stronger than the water-grasp, and cried out. But it was Laurie, who towed him into a lagoon where a creek forked out from the breakers. They floated quietly for a moment, near shores where mangroves thrust up their air-breathing suckers through the mud, trying to be trees instead of phantasmagoria. Laurie said, ‘That was a silly thing to do.’
‘I don't know. I'm not happy.’
‘Then get along out and go to Wellington.’
‘You mean, go and see my girl?’
‘Sure. If you want anything off'n a girl—looks, brains, or just to put your finger on the spot and know that what you want isn't there—you'd better go ahead. Only I thought you wouldn't be such a young fool. I thought you might be wanting a good time. We could have stopped up here and played round a bit.’
‘What about the Murchisons?’
‘Leave them to me. I can keep them entertained. You're only my fool of a kid brother. Anyhow, I'll tell them you've got a girl. They'll roar with laughter.’
Timothy said, ‘You're the missing link, Laurie. I've read about you in books.’ Laurie continued to float, belly to moonlight, and Timothy ran up to dress in the orbit of firelight. He didn't wake the Murchisons. They were Laurie's, they and the portable gramophone. By luck, he got a lift from the cliff-top, after only three hours on the track—a three hours during which he had seen a whole world fallen and ruined and wrecked, lying in opalescent stillness, its craftiness gone, nothing left of it but the inhuman. Over it burned great sheets of dew, like crackling glass.
A traveller who claimed to have been the first man to fly Cook Straits plied him all night in the train with whisky and conversation. He had been shooting, and carried a dead golden pheasant between his knees.page 148
Half-way to Wellington, he passed the pheasant to Timothy, so that he could stretch his legs and concentrate on unscrewing the flask. The world turned into a dingy dream, studded with small inverted bowls of light along the roof of the carriage. Timothy never quite lost consciousness. When the hills and thin trees outside the window were blue with dawn, he heard himself repeating, ‘Yes, I will, old chap, by God I will. Never dreamed of the possibilities.’
The traveller wrung his hand.
‘Tha'sh right. Good boy. The moment you got into the carriage, I said to myself, “Speed and class. That boy's got speed and class. The others—jush look at them. You trust yourself to little Horace.”’ He laid one finger against his nose, and winked, but just before the express drew into its final station disappeared into a lavatory, never to return. Timothy at first failed to miss him, watching the train plunge down like a black eel in a falcon's jaws, out of the last tunnel, into the bright sea-blue and little filthy black houses of Thorndon. At last he got out of the train, very stiff, and asked a porter if he had seen a man answering to the traveller's description. The porter replied stolidly, ‘Can't say, sir, I'm sure. Must ‘a’ got out the other side.’
‘Well, he was drunk,’ said Timothy, ‘and we're in on a deal, but I can't call to mind what it was.’
‘Sorry, sir. You'd better go along to Enquiries and Complaints. I've got to get on with my work.’
The gnome set his shoulders to trundling. After a moment's thought Timothy decided that he did not want the traveller, and didn't care about their deal. But he was still holding a dead pheasant, its wrinkled claws tied by a piece of string. He tried to deposit it on a seat, but an old hunched gentleman sneezed over his moustaches, and stared fiercely at him. The pheasant had burnished wattles and breast, proud flashes of gold and jewel-green. Its wrinkled lids were closed in profound contempt, the scorn of a dead Pharoah. Muttering, ‘Blasted bird,’ Timothy walked out of the station; just beyond the row of gesticulating taxi-drivers he met Eliza. She wore a little brown hat with an orange feather, and he thought, ‘She's put her hair up, and it makes all the difference. She looks like a woman now. How tall she has grown—I thought she was rather a dumpy little thing.’ Eliza said uncertainly, ‘Oh, hullo, Timothy—am I late?’ He replied, ‘No, we're just in,’ before he remembered that he had not wired to her, and she had no means of suspecting that he would be on this particular train. Then why was she there? Like the disappearance of the commercial traveller, it didn't seem to matter much. This whisky had left him dazed. They began to page 149 walk slowly up the road together. Timothy carried the pheasant dangling, and its haughty tail swept the dust.
‘How did you know I was coming?’
‘I didn't. I like meeting trains and boats—but not when they're going away, that leaves me too envious.’
A possible use for the pheasant occurred to Timothy, though he could not look at it.
‘I brought this down for your mother. Do you think she'd like to cook it?’
A little pattern of repulsion formed in the pupils of her eyes, clear as the circle-patterns on the bird's tail.
‘I suppose so. But we've never had pheasant. Don't you have to hang it till it's high, or something? I think it's too pretty to eat.’
‘I've been thinking that all along,’ said Timothy, with relief, ‘I feel like the Ancient Mariner. A traveller gave it to me, and I couldn't find him again. What shall I do with it? I can't stand those confounded eyelids.’
‘We could drop it in the grass,’ said Eliza. Timothy let the bird fall, its brown-and-gold feathers sprouting out of the dusty wayside grass, and Eliza picked two white daisies, which she dropped on its breast.
‘I don't want to go straight to your house, Eliza. My head's going round. Where can I sit still and look at you? Can you talk?’
‘Not very much. There's the old closed cemetery at Boulton Street, nobody goes there now. Isn't it lucky that you came on a Saturday? I'd have had to go to the office. It's nice in the cemetery. There's a little chapel with broken windows. Sometimes I have my lunch there.’
He said, ‘Aminee the Ghoul ate her rice grain by grain, and then went off to the cemeteries for dinner à la carte.’ Two old men strayed about among the graves, their hooks swishing down piles of pale-rooted grass, which made the air very sweet. The place had been closed for so long that nobody put mourning wreaths or flowers in jam-tins at the feet of the graves, many of which were mossy wood, their inscriptions indecipherable, the remains of scrolls or Roman lettering showing beneath their beards. A tombstone marked with two tiny marble coffins, like pointed Chinese slippers, said, ‘Twins Taken.’ Farther along, thirteen of a family had died in an early-days epidemic of diphtheria, and their tombstones lessened in size down to Amelia's, whose marble door would barely have let a rabbit through. Arms of wild-rose, streaked irises, great masses of red-flowering weed, grew about. Timothy asked, ‘What's the red stuff?’
‘I will that.’ She could feel the little bones in her body making page 150 themselves smaller, drawing close together. She thought, ‘Now I'm happy,’ with a desperate sense of imminence. Sun floated over the graves, grass-scent on the air, and Timothy made her bones small and afraid. Through the ash-leaves the light was queer and laughingly freckled, little sweet cowslip moles of light.
‘I promised myself solemnly I'd never make love to you.’
‘Did you really? Why not?’
‘Because I wish you could play tennis. I wish you were a strapping, sporting girl.’
‘Don't you like my frock, Timothy?’
‘It's too heavy. I like anything that fits you.’
(Oh, God… oh, Little Miss Blair.…)
Timothy, staring at Eliza, said softly, ‘"Our unwalled loves thin out on the empty air…”’1
‘That's Rupert Brooke.’
‘Yes. Do you know Rupert?’
‘Of course. I think I like, “The stars, a jolly company” best.’
‘Rupert's almost my hero, or he was while I still had heroes. One person whom the world loved, just before the light went out.’
Eliza said, ‘I'm glad he died while he was still a boy.’ As she sat with her skirts spread out in the grassy sunlight, Timothy liked her again in the centre of his heart. He said, ‘One day I'll introduce you to Nietzsche.’
‘Why not now?’
‘He has a cutting edge.’
‘Yes,’ thought Eliza, ‘you think I'm soft, and yes, I am.’ A tree with sharp edges, a bluegum, all little sickles, cut into the wind and the pale flesh of the light, a few feet above their heads. Timothy pulled down a cluster of the dancing leaves, and with a half-shy, half-taunting smile slipped them down the front of Eliza's Little Miss Blair frock.
‘Keep them to-night, and dream about them. Do you dream?’
‘Waking and sleeping.’ They went out of the cemetery. The chapel with broken blue windows had been long since strawed and bespattered by the starlings, who dashed in, thudded about in panic, and presented only the drops of blood from their torn breasts as communion wine. There was nobody to see that their wings were not purely black, but shot through with green and violet, especially violet. And cobwebs were spun silvery across the jagged windows. Eliza looked up at them helplessly. She would have liked to leave Timothy, to go into the chapel by herself and pray for good luck. But the windows were broken, the mouldering door was shut and locked.