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The Godwits Fly

Chapter Fifteen — The Sparrows When They Fall

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Chapter Fifteen
The Sparrows When They Fall

The voice having authority said, ‘You'll have to get her out of that bed. I want it for an appendix.’

The little voice, ‘She only came in this afternoon, Sister. Doctor ordered an injection.’

‘I can't help that, this is an abdominal bed. She'll have to go on one of the shake-downs. What do they expect, if they send me more than the ward can hold?’

At first the words were cut adrift from meaning; but when four nurses were standing, one at each corner of the bed, everything became clear and terrifying.

‘Don't move me again—don't move me again.’

‘Nurse, take the edge of that drawsheet. That's right. Steady, now.’

‘Please, Sister, don't move me. Please.’

‘You're in a special surgical bed for abdominal cases. It's needed at once, so you have to be moved.’

‘Then they shouldn't have put me here, after that ambulance. It isn't fair.’

‘Lift. That's right.’

The crying that is like tearing apart of muscle from flesh: fairness, right and wrong, no longer count. In the surgical ward there are three laws. Somebody is going to die, somebody is going to be hurt, keep the counterpanes straight and the lockers tidy. The Sister's tongue rates the little pink probationer nurses unsparingly. Most of them are nice girls, eighteen or nineteen, drifted into pink uniforms and the big, rules-ridden hostel, the lark of living together under stern laws which make them cry when they are carpeted in Matron's office, giggle when they are in their dormitories, the prolongation of their schooldays. They thought there would be more romantic doctors and fewer dressings. A few had Florence Nightingale visions. These the Sisters weeded out in their first year. That variety of spaghetti saviour had nervous breakdowns by the wayside. The efficient, cool-lipped little smarty, who could come away from her second major operation and page 166 eat a hearty dinner, was the stuff for the overcrowded hospital's game of battledore and shuttlecock.

Somebody is going to die.… Somebody is going to be hurt.… Keep the counterpanes straight and the lockers tidy. Badgering the pink uniforms about Law Three kept their minds off Laws One and Two. ‘Nurse, look at those beds.’ ‘Nurse, I thought I told you that the patients are not allowed to keep fruit in their lockers. If this happens again, you go up before Matron.’ The little pink uniforms, threatened with their super-spider, buzzed about yanking brown-paper bags from the lockers, and asking the patients, ‘Have you got your own eggs? You've got to have them marked if you want an egg for breakfast.’

‘Straighten that drawsheet. That's right. Now you can settle down and go to sleep.’

Easier said than done: easiest of all, lying on the shake-down with the harsh red light of the surgical ward pricking between stiff eyelids, to sob and sob, knowing all the time that the best are those who bear pain quietly. The bed on the right holds the flat, pale shape of a girl with peritonitis. No sound comes from her lips, only the oval of her face can be seen directly beneath a red lamp, and her arms lie so very flat, palms upspread, as if death already rested on them, an immense, obdurate weight. Presently the Spanish house-surgeon, gowned in white, comes through the surgical ward. He is beautiful because he moves slowly instead of clattering and rushing. From many of the beds come, ‘Good evening, Doctor,’ ‘Good evening, Doctor.’ He speaks to each. Sister complains because an old lady's shoulder splint sticks out over her locker.

‘It looks so untidy, Doctor.’

‘Never you mind about your lockers. Attend to the comfort of my patients.’

He is on our side, against the bustle and slamming, against being hurt. He stops and looks down. He isn't at all handsome, rather like one of the sad, wizen-faced Captain monkeys at the Zoo. They were called Captain monkeys after old Captain Puckle, who seemed to us to have the same kind of face. They used to run up and down the bars, like Captain Puckle climbing to his crow's nest, and they had little old agitated faces.

‘Where's her card?’

‘It hasn't been made out, Doctor, She wasn't admitted till late this afternoon.’

‘Shouldn't be on that shakedown. Well, kiddie, how does it feel?’

‘Oh, Doctor, it hurts.’

‘Give her a sixth, Sister.’ He moves away, white-gowned through red page 167 shadows. Presently a senior probationer comes back, a Scotch-looking little nurse in blue. Pros, wear pink, senior pros, pale blue, Sisters indigo, the Matron white with red and silver nursing medals.

Scottie dabs on iodine. ‘This is going to prick a little.’

‘I don't mind. It'll make me go to sleep. I want to go to sleep.’ The syringe jabs down, almost at once the strong pulsing of relief begins, spreading in dull gold waves all over the body; full tide, quiet tide. As pain leaves not a cranny of flesh or spirit untouched, so the golden peace, exhausting but beautiful, conquers everything that lies in its path. It is like lying under a huge golden-flowered tree, whose perfume is too heavy for anything but dreams. It makes the eyelids very heavy, fills the eyes with slow tears.

‘Don't go away yet, Nurse.’

‘You're a fractured hip and internal, aren't you?’ It sounds funny, but obediently Eliza answers ‘yes.’

‘How did it happen?’

‘I fell down a bank, getting away from a runaway car. It didn't hurt much, till I was in the ambulance. Then I thought I'd die. I prayed to be dead.’

‘Your people live near?’

‘Up on the hills. Mummy came in the ambulance.’ (That was wrong; ages ago, Augusta had said, ‘Don't call me Mummy, I've told you that till I'm tired of it. Call me Mother.’)

‘How old are you?’


‘Rotten luck. Never mind. Feel sleepy yet?’

‘Don't go away. Yes, Nurse, I'm going to sleep. I like you but I don't like the other nurse.’

‘That's Sister. She's quite all right, but the ward is far too full We're crowded out everywhere. In the diphtheria ward, the beds were so close together that the nurses had to crawl over them.’

‘I hate her, she's cruel. But I like the doctor, and I like you. Your hair looks misty.’

Soft laugh through the red darkness. ‘Cupboard love.’

‘I'm going to sleep, don't go away. It's funny, I just thought of something ages ago. It was a little marble tablet, with a mother-of-pearl parrot on it. It came from under the Taj Mahal. My grandmother sent it. It was broken at one end, and I had it in a collection of curios the year before we left Calver Street. Mother lent me her Indian shawl to take up to school with them. I wonder what happened to it?’

‘If you shut your eyes, you'll be asleep.’

page 168

‘I can stand some kinds of pain, but not if it keeps on throbbing. There was a picture of Joan of Arc—I wrote a poem—’

‘Go to sleep.’ Little far voice, at the end of a round tunnel of blackness. Joan with dark hair cut straight across her shoulders, leaning forward, her face quite eager.…

Cupboard love. Not to be hurt, not to die. To Eliza the first seemed inestimably more than the second; but the strangest, weariest old voices, like flakes coming down from some queer grey snowstorm up in the sky, begged for life from, or tilted beds asking help of, anyone—‘Nursie dear, Doctor dear, oh, dear God, dear Holy Mother of Jasus.’ From the tone of their crying, monotonous and sad, you could tell they had no real belief. ‘Don't let me die—don't let me die,’ all on the one note through a summer afternoon.

‘Ah pore thing—she's got six childring, and she takes it crool hard leaving them behind.’ But she left them, whilst others, dried leaves out of the whirlwind of death, escaped and lay on long cane couches, or wandered about the slippery polished ward, their hair lacklustre, their eyes large and vague in sallow faces. And others again demanded death, demanded him imperiously with cries whose agonized strength showed that he would be long in coming.

‘She's got cancer. Every time they move her, she screams like that, and she's kept it up for the past six weeks. Crool hard, I call it.’

Doctor is the one who gives me morphine. Give her a sixth, Sister—or if it's very bad, Give her a half, Sister. The nurses are the ones who'll move me if I don't look out. Scottie is the best. The roughest in the ward is a tall, red-headed girl who says threateningly, ‘Oh, so I can't, can't I?’ if you protest against being moved. But she can be conciliated by tinpot comic rhymes about the other nurses and the housesurgeons, especially Dr Trovey, who makes toffee in his room after hours. Nurse Jamieson, the fat one with greasy little curls under her cap, is the one who tells what the patients have wrong with them: and little Minna Craig, who hasn't much wrong but a poisoned toe and an undernourished wisp of a body, hops about between bed and bed, distributing and picking up grains of news.

‘She's at the change, and she jumped out of the upstairs window and broke her leg. They're taking her off to the asylum to-morrow.’ Shrieks, white-hot, pouring out of the little room off the ward. ‘She thinks the black devils are after her, and the nurses are laughing. There's three of them in there, laughing at her.’

‘It's crool to laugh at her, the pore thing.’

Nothing left, apart from the tyranny of one's own body, but a light, vague, battening curiosity, a sense of being linked together as girls at a page 169 school are linked, and endless gossip. The stomach-pump clanks and gurgles at night. Next day a young woman in a flannel dressing-gown walks about, sullen and brooding, one black bruise from eyebrow to breast. ‘Her old man knocked her about, so she went and swallowed lysol, but they pumped her out all right, and she's going home to-day.’ Straight black hair, falling from the forehead of a girl in the coarse flannel nightshirt of the hospital, the kind you wear if you have nothing of your own. ‘Well, I must say, really. They're keeping all her things apart, cups and everything. Do you know what that means? She's got a disease, and they've brought her in here to have the baby took away. I had two operations for that myself, but mine was different, it was because I had T.B. A shame, I call it, putting her in with decent married women and young single girls.’

Dark faces, dark sullen faces, their silence remembered for ever. Nobody spoke to the girl in the flannel nightshirt, one of us might have done.… And the little sparrow gossips. ‘Two years since I had me radium in, and now the doctor says I've got to be opened again. Life's a business, isn't it?’

Kathleen with the tawny lion's mane around her white cameo of a face, her eyes grey, her mouth lovely. ‘Appendicitis—not her. Don't you have anything to do with her, my dear, she's no better than a street-woman. I'm warning you because you're a young single girl. She's been in here before, she has.’ But Kathleen sat on the side of Eliza's bed and talked. Once she was a waitress; there was a baby, and now she was here. ‘Just appendicitis,’ she said, shaking back the lion's mane.

‘I can't stand any more. I can't stand any more.’ The doctor's voice said gravely, ‘No, I don't suppose you can.’ Eliza thought, trembling, ‘That's why I like the doctors, because they don't laugh at pain. If they did, when they're making their living by it, I'd want the earth to open with a crack of thunder under their feet, and swallow them up.’ The old rhyme out of ‘Robin Hood’ danced in her mind:

‘To take from the rich, and give to the poor—
And so God aid me, in His power.’

Screens were drawn around the new girl's bed, nothing was allowed out but her high moaning. Presently, when the doctor had gone away, enamel basins slammed and nurses scurried. ‘Nurse, Nurse, look at this floor.’ Minna Craig whispered, ‘It's blood. It's soaked right through the mattress and made a pool on the floor. Sister's not half wild.’ The page 170 new girl's voice had grown dreamy and mechanical, she had nearly forgotten what she wanted to say.

‘Doctor, I can't… oh, Doctor, dear, I can't…’ Screens closed right round her bed, wings folding, hard white wings of death.

‘That's what you get for messing about with married men, me dear.'

‘Yes,’ thought Eliza, ‘And Arthur Waley wrote in his translation of the little Chinese poem,

‘How sad it is to be a woman,
Nothing on earth is held so cheap.’1

The kind and the lovely… the kind and the lovely… their faces drift back through the twilight. Men, you have sentinelled your doors with them. It is a false judgment, the judgment you passed on them, and false the sentence of pain, and the base metal with which they were paid for living. But this is true. Their arms were white, their heavy hair fell back, wet as sickness had made it wet, their grey eyes kept a secret, and in twilight their mouths were kind. They did not remember to blame or to condemn you; if they spoke of you at all, it was quietly, with the old words of love. They were a flower that has spread itself too wide, and a moth that could not hate the flame Grave-eyed, they were garlanded; brave-winged, they flew on into dust

There was something here about a bone that wouldn't set. The little old man who presided over the fizzling golden X-rays wouldn't have Eliza moved. Twice the big machine lumbered round to the side of her bed, and stood over her behind the screens. We're going to put you under.… Breathe deep, old girl, move your little finger if you can still hear me. She's off, Sister. The rush of protest, the cry impossible to utter: ‘No, no, I'm not off yet. Don't touch me yet, Doctor.’ Then nothing but wet blackness, and running, running along an endless stretch of sands.

Presently Eliza's bed, with an iron cradle over it, was wheeled out to the balcony, which ran round a little square courtyard infinitely more pleasant than the redlit ward. The dank fountain never played, but its basin made a splash-bath for the sparrows and the silk-hat raiders, four glossy starlings living on the slanted roof of the ward opposite. Soon she had the sparrows trained to sit on the cradle, asking for crumbs every noon and five o'clock. How do they know what time it is? But punctual to the moment, they always do know. At five, when the thick cups of tea, lumps of bread, plates of fish, tripe or rabbit were handed around, out of the sky came whirring dusty grey and chestnut wings, the dress of the gamins. The starlings waited in the page 171 courtyard; when a sparrow hopped off with a large-sized crumb, they waylaid him, bullied him, pecked him, grabbed his crumb and sent him off with a flea in his ear, like big townies attacking a schoolboy outside a tuckshop.

Biddy Kissin, with a tubercular spine and two white shells of plaster of paris, above and beneath her, lay in the right-hand bed and knitted. Her fair plaits hung against a plump, rosy face, which always wrinkled into discontent when her husband came. Biddy couldn't be sure that he had remained faithful, and he wasn't telling; she bombarded him with questions, appeals and threats, while he sat beside her, the paper bag of oranges dandled on his knee. All his infidelities, if they existed, stayed behind his hard-shell little face. When he had gone, Biddy was always in tears. ‘What I've got to put up with. Little a girl knows until she's married. Oh, I'm that unhappy. Didn't I bear his children for him? And me lying here, and him up to I don't know what.…’

In the left-hand bed Rangi, the Maori girl, lay watching until the nurses were out of the way. Then she slipped her thin legs from under the bedclothes. ‘Now don't—somebody ought to stop her. Rangi, you get back to bed.’ But Rangi, never seeming to hear Biddy Kissin, smiled her fixed little smile and reached out for the balcony rail. She didn't know much English, and had forgotten what she did know since the big tubercular abscess broke out on her hip. She smiled vaguely at everyone, her eyes liquid brown as a deer's, her skin brown-eggshell-smooth. Holding first to the galvanized iron bedrail, she jerked a step forward, then stood wavering. Her smile was still fixed. She half lurched, half fell to the balcony, caught the rail, and started to drag herself along a little at a time, teaching herself to walk again. On Sundays her husband came, a thin Maori boy in a scarlet jersey cap, and they talked together low-voiced in their own tongue, as if they were meditating escape. Perhaps Rangi really did want to run away with him. When he had gone, she lay back, brown and smiling, her great eyes closed. She was eighteen, the same age as Eliza. Presently she was taken away, and died in the hospital for consumptives. Maoris are very much afraid of white hospitals and white medicine, and like best to die in their own way outside.

Twice a week the outer world drifted in, admitted by ticket, a little frightened, a little muddled; Augusta with new-laid eggs and Fiji oranges, John with books, Carly with pink and lavender bed-caps, all satin streamers, lace hearts and tiny flowers. You were supposed to wear them pinned on your hair. Eliza knew Carly had taken them out of her glory-box, where she was keeping things for Trevor Sinjohn; page 172 starting with the vogue for Richelieu work, which was in when she was still at College, passing through lazy-daisy and cross-stitch to eyeletholes, which were popular now. Sandra, tall, awkward and pretty, a golden giraffe, bit her tongue for shyness. She was having a stormy passage at school, if you spoke to her suddenly her blue eyes swam with tears. Once—queer once—she said, ‘Don't you think all the trouble began when we left off playing games after dark?’ One Hannay didn't need to ask another, ‘What trouble?’ Lost, in a wilderness of brick and mortar, rules and regulations, love and hate; instead of the thicket where there were supplejack bows, and streams with eels and wild mint.

Simone came once, with a tall, fair, square-shouldered boy, Toby Brian. She wore a fur coat—Eliza knew Augusta would explode about that when she had gone, and want to know how Simone got the money—and chattered and laughed a great deal. ‘Darling, how pretty you look—all pink in the face, and with those enormous eyes. Being ill does suit you. I think I'll have to try it, I'm so battered.’ But at the end of the visit, she bent down and whispered, ‘I'm not coming again, what's the use?’ Her green eyes had the old blinded look. Eliza nodded. She didn't want her lovely free ones in the hospital ward—not Timothy or Simone.

Timothy had gone away again to Auckland, before she had had the accident, and she only thought sharply of him once: when a surgeon, half-joking, asked her if she wouldn't rather have her leg cut off. Timothy running in the pinewoods, under the green rafters. Timothy, wait for me, I've got my leg cut off. She said, ‘No, no,’ and the doctor laughed. ‘It's all right. I was only joking.’

On the balcony she began writing a novel, an overgrown fairytale about a little boy who fell off the earth and went wandering through space. She could see thickets and campfires for him, but the plot tailed off, and writing against the iron cradle made her tired. Mostly she lay quiet, or clicked together the big wooden knitting needles Carly had brought her, with mauve-pearl wool to make a wrap. The wrap never got done.… Days were much better than the nights, when the red light pricked through the windows, and always somebody came moaning or retching out from the anæsthetics, and it was impossible to get morphine, she had had far too much, and was better now. Biddy Kissin lay a white restless mountain in her bed, a tap dripped, a little piercing pinprick that went cleanly into the brain. She had dreams in which she was always running, taking high fences and rocks with great, easy leaps, Jack-the-Ripper leaps, which yet left a dream-feeling of dreadful effort. Then terror came in. Lions and tigers page 173 were after her, and she had to stop and persuade them, with long, plausible arguments, not to tear her to pieces. Sometimes she simply hid from them, once or twice she triumphed over them and they let her ride on their backs, but the feeling of effort and fear was never gone.

The nurse most unpopular with Sister, a tall, angular girl who had put on the pink uniform far too late in life, came and sat on her bed. ‘We both do our best, Eliza.’ Her eyes were always red-rimmed with weeping, her cap bedraggled. She had bad dreams too, dreams of laying out bodies. They were so bad, the things they had died of so appalling, that if she didn't tell them she thought she would go mad. Often she heard a loud, insistent ringing in her ears.

‘I'll give your back a rub with meths. I'm not supposed to, after tea, and I'll get into trouble if I'm caught. But why shouldn't I, if it makes you comfortable? I'm not such a bad nurse to you, am I, Eliza?’

‘I think you're a very good nurse, far better than the Sister.’

It wasn't even true. Red-eyed kindliness didn't go for much, rush and bustle got there, and were quite human so long as you didn't cross their path, deface their polished floors, their polished rules. Like little old Mrs Calgary, who would spit. At times you could hear her muttering, ‘I'm not goin’ to spit on the floor, I'm not goin’ to spit on the floor, that's a dirty trick, that is, spittin’ on the floor, oh, dear Lord Jasus, don't let me spit on the floor.’

At Laloma, Augusta and John were trying something difficult; they had to have their say; and simultaneously, they must keep their shipwrecked barque from going to pieces altogether.

‘You lost your promotion. With your daughter as sick as she is, perhaps a helpless cripple for life, you had to play the fool and lose your promotion.’

‘Because I didn't crawl.… Get out of here, and leave me. I've had enough. Go and live with your crawlers.’

The little articles, ‘Mohammed to the Mountain,’ in the magazine which some had considered Red: John had always been immensely proud of them. Years after it was due, after younger men had been passed over his head, promotion was gazetted; a tidy little job, the charge of the clerical staff in a branch firm, and no backblocks concern, either. His new job was well away, in a town where his position would be quite respectable. He had thought, once or twice, of buying a cheap car. As soon as Eliza could be moved, Laloma was going up for sale.

And then, at the office, John argued with the wrong man. There page 174 was a word and a blow, and in the little inner office where things were decided, copies of Stingaree were spread out on a desk.

‘You lost your promotion. You had to skite about your politics, and lose your promotion.’

Looking backwards, John could see himself in his first youth. No money, not much of an education, but his father by then was established at a place that counted; a tall, well-moustached, grave-eyed old soldier, sufficiently dignified to pass at a glance for the real and not the self-made article. His little Frenchy mother laughed, waved fluttering brown hands, and kept parroquets in a long wired balcony. After the Boer War… there were thirteen of us who held a bridge that had to be held, nine were potted, and that's where I got this little bit of tinware on my chest… at least he wasn't bad-looking, not a complete fool. Confusedly he stared at the gap between, and couldn't quite understand it.

‘Because I wouldn't crawl to them. That's it.’

He was rash enough to fight the little notice that cancelled his promotion. Then they hit him, hit him from all sides at once. Men who had worked beside him for years played sweet with the Bosses. They said straight out, ‘If you get on the wrong side of Shenstone, you're done.’

Unfit; they stung him with words, safe in their cover of money and smooth white flesh. He had a wife and four children, one of them in hospital, and the bills mounting up. He had to stay on and be grateful, while the young passed over and over his dusty head, laughing at him.

‘That word job,’ he thought, ‘there's something queer even in the sound of it. Take the things it rhymes with—nob, rob, slob, shut your gob, the Bosses are coming. It hasn't anything to do with work. The cockies work harder at their farms. It means—oh, God, what does it mean? See the white collar round your neck instead of the serf's ring. See yourself getting softer and softer, whining-soft, at a hard life; for that's what it is, a hard, base life, a deprived life.’

Augusta, looking forward, saw nothing for herself. She saw Carly, Eliza, Sandra and Kitch—what the strong, contemptuous honesty of her brothers, the Mallee Giants, would have called, ‘Neither fish nor flesh, nor good red herring.’ She hadn't brought them up for the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker. But no money, no poise, no key to her white house like a Greek cross, her two blue vases sitting on the mantelshelf, the tall one stork-necked, filled perhaps with irises, the squat one bubbling over with the manifold primroses she had never seen.

If they had been characterless she would have had more faith in page 175 their destiny. The straws ride easy. But Carly had the soft and delicate force of unasking love. Eliza—ever since she had made up her mind that Timothy Cardew wasn't the marrying kind, she had thought, ‘Better dead,’ and now there was this smash; Sandra needed comfortable things, laughter and pretty frocks and girl friends, to round off the edges of her shyness; Kitch was still her little boy, passionately in earnest over model aeroplanes, generally quiet and good. But when his time came he'd present his bill, the bill you get twenty years after the gasping agony of giving another individual life.

Through the windows of her drawing-room the soft full light burst down on the hills, gilding the cleft between the pine trees, and the farther, barren peaks which lifted grey as rosemary above the last of the bush. Everything in this drawing-room, and the other five rooms of the house, she had managed somehow to buy out of the housekeeping money—never more than £4 a week, at first £1/19/-, a man and two children to keep on it; the piano, of course, that came from Rufus's money, and Eliza's illness would eat up the rest. But the big picture of Bonnie Prince Charlie, she had lugged that home under her arm from an auction sale. Half the time she hadn't had the money for tram-fares, and she could see herself now, scarlet-faced, sweating under the bands of her black straw hats, toiling up the hills like a beast of burden. And not just furniture. Good food for them, though she remembered sitting at table with one egg, and that wasn't for her, though Sandra was coming. And when they were little, her children's frocks were always the prettiest and best, though now her sight blurred behind her spectacles, and the old sewing-machine broke the thread so often that using it taxed her patience.

Still the hills drew back her glance. She thought, ‘I wish I'd gone all round them when I came here first. Now it's too late.’

All her life from girlhood, she understood now, had never been lived at all, unless a woman is nothing but the machinery for producing and manipulating her children. In England the white house stood empty somewhere, the little clenched fists of bracken thrusting up beside its paths, its windows like golden blinded eyes. In a room, the soft drawing crackle of the log fire was the only sound breaking the stillness: as she listened, a log crashed, and the yellow embers heaped up. The scent of hyacinths thickened in the air like cream.

Drudging in little houses, bringing up children, heckling John to make him what he wasn't, and didn't want to be—that wasn't life.

‘Days should speak,’ said the Book of Job. In soft reverent music, in a bird's voice calling and the unheard sound of a primrose's pink stem parting the moss, her days should have spoken; but not in this huddle, page 176 the crude complacent gabble of a place where everyone was on the make.

A summer fly buzzed, and fell brown dead against the inside of the windows. She had no part nor lot in the grey hills, whose flanks melted into one another as if Maori gods lay asleep, promiscuous in one another's arms after the belly-loading of some immense, noble banquet. But she didn't hate them. Her eyes felt dim, her mind heavy, unable to take in with youth's elasticity the span of skies and the ragged grey saplings of clouds. She wished it were not so; she wished she had tramped round their edges years ago, instead of huddling into the auction sales. It was all she could do now for the hills.