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The Godwits Fly

Chapter Seventeen — The Kind Green Arm

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Chapter Seventeen
The Kind Green Arm

They lay under the lacebark trees, on the shabby kapok mattresses with which they had lined the bottom of the lorry. Little cool flowers broke off, white scales of blossom, and crumbled down on their sunburnt faces. A boy named Borden sat up, mixing a salad which he called ‘Cooled Off’; it had passion-fruit, crème-dementhe and crayfish.

‘It tastes lovely, but we'll all be dead,’ murmured little Annie Carr, in a sleepy, happy voice. They pulled their handkerchiefs over their faces, and wanted to go to sleep in the lacebark-mottled sun, the squinting green picnic sun. Jim Braythwaite lay next to her, and she hoped he wouldn't get up and go away: but, as she might have known, he said to the stranger, ‘Come for a walk,’ and Annie between her lashes watched them scramble up from among the quiet mounds of bodies.

Really the purple mountains were extraordinary. Somebody had scissored them out of painted cardboard, all except one higher peak, covered with snow, and like a white glistening cow turning its udder to the sky, feeding the clouds, which took on palpable substance as they sucked. The lake water at their feet was flat and still, lipping thinly through reeds, each of which stood out separate, brittle as glass. A bird in the reed-beds scuttled and cried, midges danced in a spire of air, which meant full sunlight for to-morrow. Eliza thought quietly, ‘Yes, I'm happy here, quite happy. And I feel so well.’ She said, ‘I heard there were deer in among the lacebarks. I'd love to see one.’

But no large mournful shape stood pushing its hairy cheeks and distressed eyes through the branches, and they went on to a sticky place, half morass, where Jim Braythwaite carried her over. On the other side was a deserted farmhouse with lemon trees standing behind it. The thick golden-green curve of the macrocarpa hedge, breaking now into high scented feathers, was an accomplishment in itself. It was a protective arm, a kind green arm, crooked around the fallen little place that people once living here had made. Eliza thought, ‘If the man once here never did anything else in his life than make that hedge, page 184 still his time wasn't wasted.’ The rest of the garden was freckled and dew-splashed in high green ruin. She stood crumpling the pale crinkled lemon leaves between her fingers; their scent crept into the skin of her palms.

‘Isn't it lovely? Who lived in that old house? Isn't it ghostly, the way the old pink roses shudder and fall to bits, as if a hand had touched them?’ She looked at Jim's face, which for once was not smiling and not ugly. She could not tell what he was thinking. It seemed his bitter drained mouth did the thinking for him, and behind his dark eyes nothing lived at all. She shivered a little, for he was more ghostly than the breaking roses, and to stand in a dying garden with the swarthy ghost of a man, watching for whatever animated him to come back behind his eyes, was going deeper below the surface of things than Eliza liked. She could not be sure if she admired or hated his darkness. It was like a black cup; the sweet air and the sunshine were poured into it, and—and died. Yet he wasn't old, he couldn't have been more than thirty-five or thirty-seven.1

Jim said, as if he read her thoughts, ‘So you really think you like us here?’ He smiled down from his thin height of six feet and an inch. She hesitated. ‘Yes; I think I do. I like the climate, and the smell of sulphur. It's so seldom Hell gives warning, but here it's frank, don't you think? Even your flowers are hellish—pantomime-devil flowers. They stick up red wands and blue daggers out of the white dust.’

‘And the people?’

‘Oh, it's all cut-throat bridge, isn't it? With the exception of one or two who seem to have got here by accident, like that girl Carr. I liked her. The rest are exactly like their country. At any moment, you feel they're going to do something excitable. Anyhow they're not dingy.’

‘And I?’

‘You're most terribly obliging. Preux chevalier, or have I got my French lesson mixed up again?’ (From Mrs Ancell, when the deathwatch beetle of a headache ticked again behind her forehead, ‘Jim, darling, do get my aspirin’; from Cecily Wetherby at the races, ‘Jim, darling, this is a sure one, you'll come in on it, won't you?’ From all the other little emaciated maidens, little stout widowettes, petitions and requests; and Jim attended to them all like a robot; yet he was just too tall, just too dark and grinning, to be lapdog.)

‘Then, on the whole, you'll stay and register approval?’

‘Oh, I'll stay: to the end of this month, anyhow. I like the climate, and I like my dress with the large cherry flowers. Only one thing…’

‘Why don't you say what it is? We'll attend to it.’

‘The circus. I do so wish the circus hadn't come to town. The page 185 moment I saw the tents tethered, down at that little green place, I started telling myself that it didn't matter; and I know perfectly well that it does.’

‘We've struck a complex,’ said Jim. ‘Like an iceberg, when everything looked such lovely plain sailing. This circus hasn't got anything more than a starved-looking yellow menagerie which hopes you'll feed it peanuts, and a few monkeys combing fleas, and my drunken pal Bristol Joe, who is not this world's greatest trapeze artist. Then aren't you going to give them their miserable shilling, and come along and suck ices with the rest of us to-night? Or are you one of those creepy humanitarians—want to let all the animals out of their cages?’

‘No, I'm afraid it's exactly the other way about. You see, Jim, nobody would ever guess it who looked at me now—sturdy wench—but once I was desperately ill, and the roaring of lions and tigers got into my dreams. I had some remarkable arguments with them. It went away, but if I'm anywhere near a zoo or a circus, back it comes, and then I want to do idiotic things. Or else pack up and run.’

‘Idiotic things, such as what?’

‘Oh, scream and scream, you know. Not a bit of the boy Daniel.’

‘We can't have you running and screaming because of a couple of moth-eaten old lions. And does the complex only operate at night?’

‘Yes. If I wake up in the dark and hear them.’

‘Then if you wake up, my room's only across the corridor. You could come in and have a spot.’

Eliza said, ‘Or you could come into my room.’ Immediately she felt, ‘Just what the pantomime-devil flowers ordered.’

‘I could,’ said Jim. Then he did another thing she hadn't expected of him. He said softly, ‘Once in a blue moon, I get a funny dream myself, you know. Houses falling into one another, slap-bang, like a pack of cards, and then dust coming up in huge billows. And I don't like it at all.’

‘When did it start?’

‘I was seventeen when I got into the very tail-end of the war—just the dying flip. And at one place there was some very heavy bombardment going on in a street. Funny.’

Eliza said, ‘Yes, funny’; because the desperate things that happen, the monopolizing tragedies and grievances, are funny; man-eating jokes. The cold arc of the lake cut across their sight as they walked back. There were three lakes in this chain—silver, green and blue. You could stand on a knoll of little height but thick bush, and have those three colours, uncompromising in their difference from one another, cut into you. The green lake was loveliest, perhaps, a naiad with a page 186 heartless face, her hair rippling out towards her shores, where nobody lived and nothing moved except the shirring of bird wings, or the hoofs of red deer set down stamping in thick mud. Their feet stumbled over knots of couch grass as they walked. They met a limping black cocker spaniel, a mere baby, with a broken paw and eyes like topaz. The farmhand said he was to be drowned, for a nuisance. Jim bought him for five shillings, picked him up and comforted him, pressing the little black quaking body against his tweed coat. Eliza thought, ‘Yes—he could be gentle.’ They got to the picnic-place, and the girl Annie, with a restless, sun-scarlet face, ran to meet them. ‘Oh, here you are at last!’ They all sang songs driving back on the lorry. Jim had a fine voice. ‘But he doesn't quite pull it off,’ thought Eliza. ‘None of my friends do, and none of them will be satisfied with anything less.’

Black silk for night, blue silk for day, red silk over the light in Jim Braythwaite's room. The impacts of roses and sunsets on the eyes, the cold little elfin scatter of fountain-drops, perfume a fine silk touch, were parts of the new life on which she could rely. No agony in them, no lying awake and thinking. In the cherry-coloured dress with the vast vague flowers, she looked so well that she told herself, ‘Nobody would ever know I've been broken and put together again.’ Of Jim Braythwaite she wasn't so sure. She thought, walking in the gardens, how mad it would be to scribble on a postcard, ‘Having a lover isn't much to write home about,’ and send it off to Timothy. She had burned Timothy's two letters from London, because in both he had said that he was coming back to her, and that was more than she could bear. Now she could only remember a phrase from one of them. ‘London is wonderful—oh, the smoke, and sun just a copper-red ball!’ Well, somewhere in that old phœnix nest, Timothy either blazed or wilted, according to his luck. In her two hard years, her two hard-working years, when for months she had dragged herself about on crutches, and made money just the same, she had never heard any more of Timothy. At this date, she didn't especially want to: only, how strange it would be, to see him come running round the over-smooth edge of the bed that thrust up fiery daemonic flower-spikes, wands and daggers! How childish he seemed, against Jim's dark pit of a face, where all the sunshine had long since gone into coal. The sleek arcs of fountain-drops broke, and drops leapt big as frogs into a basin, to be lost on the lilypads and the calm scarlet water-flowers, very wide open.

No, really, Timothy, having Jim Braythwaite as my lover hasn't made any difference. Like the Bishop and the confirmation service—but you wouldn't remember that. They all said, ‘Something wonderful page 187 will happen to you,’ and I went about in a state of excitement for days, but nothing did. I guess I just don't react to revolutions.…

Or they should be different; like a secret smile, like a secret dream in the night.

Jim went out to work daily from his summer cottage, and Eliza went over and tidied up his things. That gave her more pleasure than anything else left in this hot place. The house waited, passive, helpless and mysterious, like an old wooden child, and the curly piano lid in the drawing-room hid a forest of slender green melodies. She could open the lid and make them climb up, forests too brittle and magical to last when another person knocked on the door. Not that she was anything of a musician; but the slumbrous dream in the piano woke and answered her dream. She liked picking the flowers in the little garden, wavering poppy-stalks with heavy heads, cool sweet peas and the fragile misty gypsophilas. No fierce colours here.… Jim laughed at the fetish she made of his house. It contained in its bedroom the whole of his unwritten history—the ostentatious gold-lettered dressingcase Cecily Wetherby had given him, the shagreen-covered brushes, the dressing-gowns, La Vie Parisienne. She liked to put each back exactly where she found it. In Jim's life she had no part nor lot. Only, after dusk, like two absent-minded strangers, they met again, and their quick, careless love affair, begun and ended on a laugh, went on. It wasn't that there seemed nothing to make him memorable. His thin mouth, the swiftness of the sting he could dart into talk, his dark eyes, seemed to her as attractive in a midnight way as Timothy. She herself didn't look ugly. She was white and red, red of the cherry frocks, white of the languid pallor dealt out by the sun which burdened the flowers with too much colour. But it was as if they had resolved to be nothing more than surface: two shapes lounging, walking, gesticulating, serving out cool salad and drinks with olives, suddenly close together, in the shadow play of a Harlequinade. She liked him best when he sang with Annie Carr. His voice wasn't so very good, the girl's a mezzo that had become entangled with soprano aspirations, but there was something childish and touching about their limned profiles. The voice of Annie was heavy with her little-complaining love for Jim.

Oh, my cinnamon tree! my cinnamon tree!

‘Yes,’ thought Eliza, ‘I like them together. Poor children, poor dear children. If he were wise he'd marry her, but I'm afraid he's learned too much, in that scrappy way.’

Cecily Wetherby came to the races, and Jim trotted obediently at page 188 her heels, her thin black dog; Cecily was very rich. Appropriately they said, ‘She's rolling,’ for she did, rolls and rolls of fat pink above and beneath her corsets, showing through the thin embroidered clothes she insisted on wearing. Cecily's little parasol, mauve faille, sprouted above her head like an astonishing flower from a pot. Her body was tight curves, and a round little frizzled head sat up, surprised, on top. In the sunshine streams of perspiration ran down her face, clogging the streaked pink powder. But for all her awfulness, she was so good-natured, such an amiable, shrewd, easy-laughing bundle, that nobody could dislike her. ‘Jim—Jim darling, you'll go on this, won't you? It's a good thing.’ And who paid, if the good thing refused to show its paces? Cecily's thin black dog liked money.

While the races were on, Eliza explored alone in the sun. The soil was white with pumice dust, nothing grew in it but ti-tree and the blazing foreign flowers… the little, bright, astounding gardens, blistered with colours, sweating flowers. Once, climbing a hill, she twisted her ankle, and heard behind her a liquid exclamation of distress. A big Maori woman ran up, and put a hand under her elbow, murmuring sympathy like a pouter pigeon. She wore a kilted cotton skirt and a red blouse which made the day seem even hotter. Her bare feet happily trod the stony, blazing skin of the soil. Her skin was golden-brown, like the smoked shark she ate at feasts, but when Eliza, looked at her eyes, they seemed so lovely as not to be human at all. Liquid, dark and bright, the eyes of a fairy-tale bird, they looked out with detachment from her brown face, bagging into heavy seams. Her soft voice coaxed the stumbling pakeha to a seat. Then she brought milk in a dirty cup. Eliza sat watching a row of bronze boys, the little ones quite naked, diving from a bridge into a hot creek for the pennies flung to them by tourists, whose faces were the faces of kind horses. Down went the brown pennies, cutting holes in a so clear, so green water that you could see the sand beneath. Down swallo-dived the scrawny naked boys, coming up with coins in their teeth, striking back their little shoulders bravely. The women of the place looked shapeless and too thickly clothed; their thick lips smiled, showing very bad teeth, the golden great-headed babies dangled in shawls on their backs. The sun had brought out scrambling children like flies on a dung-heap. Some of their faces were scarred and pitted, some of them coughed.

But her eyes were like the eyes of the bird in Olive Schreiner' fairy-tale, the beautiful dark bird that cried, ‘Immortality—immortality’, bringing sorrow to human hearts. Which is the Maori race? Or a little bit of both, I suppose.…

page 189

At Jim's cottage one day a woman knocked on the door. Eliza opened it with a broom in her hands. The woman was tired from travelling, middle-aged, pleasant-faced.

‘But he's out, I'm afraid. Is there any message I could write down for him?’

‘Oh, no.’ The woman hesitated, then smiled shyly. ‘Are you his wife?’

‘No, no. I just come over sometimes and tidy up. I'm a stranger here, you see, on holiday, and this gives me a little to do.’ Then, as the woman's look did not run away and hold a little scandal-colloquy behind her eyes, Eliza asked, ‘Won't you let me get you some tea?’

‘Well, really.… If you're quite sure it won't be too much bother…’

‘Do, please, come in. It's coolest in this room. The old jasmine is very pretty, but it makes the dining-room stuffy.’ There were mother-of-pearl papers and dark woods behind the tired woman's head, and in the safe tomatoes and lettuce leaf, still curly. Eliza cut the bread very thin. When she had carried the tray, the tired woman laughed and talked; her eyes grew brighter, in a sudden intimacy out of nowhere. At last she got up, shaking her dusty skirts.

‘This has been so delightful. I feel now that I can bear to go on. It's the heat, isn't it?’

She was gone away out of the gate covered with jasmine. Eliza thought, ‘I only know her name, and that doesn't matter, but I believe that's why married women can put up with staying in their houses. Playing host and guest, serving things cool.…’ For a moment she wished she had been born in the Japanese country, where women are taught for years the arts of flower-arrangement, and wear their hair in huge black shiny buns, taking hours to compose. Then she waved her hands impatiently at the sunset, which stood like a row of solemn flamingos all along the west. ‘Oh, no, no. One would get first bored, then frowzy, then secretly insane. It's only my loneliness.’

Loosen, tighten, break. A queer little thread, never quite meant to hold, was coming to an end. Jim and Eliza had reached the place where they had to go on—closer, more understanding—or go apart. The cottage Eliza saw in clearer light than Jim. A willow bough scraped affably against its roof as she swept the floors, outside the jasmine made a mass of dark leafage and little white stars. She felt heavy sick and hot; her food tasted of the sulphur that lay always in the air. The green days, green and crystal days under running feet, seemed as clean as they were far away. To feel cool again, one would have to strip off the whole casing of flesh and of thoughts.

page 190

She was never going back to the cottage any more. Its piano, its flowers and its shagreen cases, which now seemed faintly sly, could take care of themselves. On the last night she stayed at the boardinghouse, Jim came over from the cottage and slept in the next room. He did not speak to her, even look at her, but his door stood wide open as she passed, so that she saw him sitting, his back towards her. Light made a little round sail of the water carafe, pinned on it the ruby moth of lamplight. His hair was cut short, she could see nothing else but his hands, strong, ugly, and spread out before him on the table.

He looked like somebody lost, lost in an immense jungle. The lamplight reached down long red stalks that grew all about him. He was frightened by a dream of falling houses and dust billowed out by earth's great sigh, she by the lions and tigers. But the lions and tigers were far away now, stale and unreal. Truer was the great golden-green curve of that hedge by the lakeside, the kind green arm. That had been a thing well done. Lemon leaves smell lovely after rain. The fragile misty gypsophilas are withering now in your vases where I put them, Jim. I liked you best when you were singing with Annie Carr. You should marry her, but I'm afraid you won't. Auf wiedersehen; but not even that out loud, or the whole thing will start again, and I want to get away, I want to get away. I feel sick, and I'm going to work all this off. I'm going to work so hard that you wouldn't believe it was I.…

In the night, the wind rose, and the open door of Jim's room banged once or twice. At about four o'clock he got up quietly and closed it. A long while afterwards, Eliza wondered how two people so utterly alone could have taken the trouble to hurt one another.