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The Godwits Fly

Chapter Nineteen — Alien Corn

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Chapter Nineteen
Alien Corn

Dark city of dreams, almost purple in the early morning when the ship docks; palm trees rising up like the frigid stalks of fountains, and houses down to the water's edge; no wildness, no great bare tawny patches or hills like the flukes of sea-monsters. Houses and purple dark, curious faces crowding through long arcades.

From the first Eliza was frightened of the wheeled traffic, especially of the great horse-lorries lumbering down to the wharves and the markets. Horses are such kind old dears, this world's innocents; but the steady stream, wheel rumbling after wheel, unbroken and unbreakable, challenged her with a strength she had no mind to resist. You could stand on a kerbstone, muttering. (She had noticed old leaf-like people doing that.) Your voice grew shriller and angrier, as you realized that neither the line of lorries nor the wand of your fear would break, that there was nobody to hold up a magic hand and say ‘Halt,’ even to sympathize with you in your confusion. Crossing a Sydney street was an orgy of cowardice; exhaustion, when you reached the safety of the far side.

Dimly she realized, ‘I wouldn't feel like this if I weren't ill.’ But at hand there was no relief except the bright flagrant colours of the flowers, lovely Australian colours, piled high on handcarts and barrows, which were owned by little grotesque men, one-armed, one-legged, nobbly as gnomes, tending their sixpenny bunches in Martin Place. Iceland poppies were in, millions of gay pink and orange flags. After those the boronia and the redolent native roses, young redgumtips from the mountains, shiny as new spider-webs. Flannel flowers came next, white with green tips, and on the first of September the wattle, masses and masses of fluffy chicken-gold balls.

Eliza said to her landlady, Ena Burns, ‘I'm going to have a baby, and I'm not married.’ She hadn't intended to, but as Ena stood watching her unpack, there was a pale insatiable hunger for knowledge in her face, which drew out facts like a magnet. Ena didn't mind. She murmured, ‘Men are dirty brutes. They oughta leave decent girls alone.’ Eliza folded away her clothes in the chest of drawers. The big, page 195 dank room looked out on a perfectly flat little street, running along from nowhere to nowhere. The name of the suburb was pretty—Surry Hills. Eliza's taxi-driver was a pirate, and demanded ten and sixpence for bringing her from the docks, but she was afraid to quarrel with him, and paid over. She had worked out the strength of the money Jim gave her; it came to nearly £2 a week, if he sent some more later for the nursing-home and the doctor. She paid Ena thirty shillings in advance, and decided soon to go out shopping and buy things for her baby—lovely things, lace and hailstone muslin and little absurd caps. Since Simone had given her the miniatures, the baby didn't seem quite such a fantastic dream. She didn't love him—she loved nobody except Timothy and Simone, and, with a faraway dulled love, the lost people of the house at Calver Street. But she could think of her baby as an individual, very small and dark, with a white face and Jim's eyes. No children ran along outside her window, but men passed, dark and shapeless, their bodies exactly level with the edge of the Venetian blind. On the air was a heaviness of white dust. She closed her window, but dust seemed to live in the air.

When she went down the steps to the kitchen, Ena's husband, called Bill, her old father and a little girl of seven were seated at table waiting for her. She could see from their looks that Ena had told them why she was here. Bill lifted a sweat-red, shy, honest face, crowned with curly hair like a dog's, saying, ‘Pleased t’ meet you. Sit down.’ Old Mr Simons had roughed it in his day, and bore the trade-marks. He had lost an arm and a leg, his skin was bright yellow, and a Chinese moustache straggled white against it. When he moved about the kitchen, he stuck the stump of his leg through the crutch-handle, and hopped, a ragged trouser-end flapping. You could see where his stump ended and nothing began. He was shrill and querulous. ‘Let's have tea, Ena, can't yer? Gitting late, it is that, and I want me tea.’ The little girl, with a quaintly Japanese face under short-cut bright yellow hair, sidled up to Eliza. ‘My name's Polly. Tell us a story. Tell Polly a story.’ Then another child crawled out from under the table. Its face was very dirty, and as it stood smiling uncertainly, its white legs wobbled. There was a sixpenny coloured ball in its hand; to tell its age, from its preternaturally aged face, was impossible. Polly ran up to it and hit it to get the coloured ball. ‘That's the kid next door,’ she explained. ‘We've got to mind him ’cos his mummy's sick. He's only not crying because you're here. He always cries if I punch him. Give me your ball.’ She hit the dirty child again, and he suddenly found his voice. ‘She hit me on my cut,’ he shrieked, ‘she hit me on my cut.’ Polly said, ‘Well, give us your ball,’ and the dirty child sobbed. A page 196 Rosella parrot, dainty red and grey, laughed in its cage. ‘Have some frankfurts,’ said Ena, stringing bright scarlet, scalding little sausages out of the pot. They all ate frankfurts and pickles, bread and cheese. A whippet bitch edged under the table and crowded their knees, quivering with its sensitive, half aristocratic, half mongrel head against Bill's knees. ‘Good dog,’ said Eliza politely, and the thin liver-coloured dog cowered. Bill's face brightened. ‘We're going to run her soon. Aren't we, girlie? Who's a lick of greased lightning?’ Ena said, ‘You and your dogs!’ Her flat voice held the perfection of scorn.

After supper Polly showed Eliza the backyard. It had been bricked, but the bricks were falling apart, and a horse lived there, shoving its white inexplicable face over a box. Where it stamped, the earth was greasy with manure. The little boy from next door wobbled out and stood smiling, but Polly ran and smacked him. ‘You get along inside, we don't want you here.’ There were fowls and a scraggly cat. Eliza told Polly the story of the three bears. She was bright-eyed, but liked the same thing over and over. ‘Tell us again, tell us again,’ she shrilled. Then suddenly she burst into shrieks of laughter, and ran inside the house. A little later, from her bedroom window, Eliza watched Polly in the street. She had the little boy from next door by the fist, and was showing him, quite carefully, how to play hopscotch.

The bathroom was up a flight of rickety stairs, and the water had to be carried in basins. ‘It was full of coal when we came here,’ said Ena. Ena and Bill's bedroom was beyond it, and Polly's cot stood now in the same room, while the old man slept on a couch in the kitchen. ‘It don't matter about Polly. She's only a little ’un, and we had to put her there now we've got a boarder,’ Ena said.

The bright insatiable hunger in her eyes was not easily appeased. She was a sallow wisp, her neck swollen with goitre, flat strands of lustreless brown hair parted round her face. Two of her babies had died, and she had a miss last year. ‘It's the milk,’ she said, without resentment. ‘And that hospital's something cruel. Tessie was a dear little thing, but her bowels didn't act. And when they'd got us to put her in there, they kept us sitting and sitting outside, and all the time she was dying, black in the face. The other one, Gert, died of the croup. You don't need to go into that hospital to have yours, if you don't want to. You could have it here. I had all mine on the couch downstairs. Mrs Molloy is a wonder at it. But the trouble with her is, she drinks a lot.’

‘Didn't you have any chloroform?’

‘I held on to a towel. The last baby caught somehow, and we was two nights waiting, and Mrs Molloy making cups of tea, and cups of tea, and reading the cards to try and cheer me up. That hurt something page 197 awful. If you like I'll help you do your shopping for the baby.’

‘I wish you would. That would be very kind of you, I don't know the names of the shops.’

‘Oh, it's nice to get out a bit, isn't it? Shopping's a bit of fun. We can go to Dyers’, they've got the time-payment.’

‘What's time-payment?’

‘You put a bit down, and get the things when you want them. It's no use your getting a lot of baby-clothes you mightn't need, is it?’

She had said it herself, Eliza remembered: I won't live, or else the baby won't live, so you haven't got to marry me. But something in her cried out against Ena, fierce and angry. She silenced it. Ena was only being sensible.

‘I'm very tired, Mrs Burns. I think I'll go to bed.’

Is it like this? Funny little streets running nowhere, like those sentences in conversation that you never remember, and horse manure on the broken bricks, holding on to the towel, and dust, and dust?

Courage is a beautiful sleek horse, she thought, a thoroughbred, with its eyes blazing and the wind tapering round its ardent flanks. It is sensitive and swift, nerved for the one crucial thing. I haven't got that. Only the slow, plodding mule-gait: and I give in often, and cry for help, but when help doesn't come, I can manage, as a rule.

It is light very early in the Sydney mornings, not with a clear, sharp burst of light but with a humid grey veil. At noon the torpor is intolerable. The moist colours of the fruit reach their peak of incandescent brightness; then they bloat, like dead things, and commence to rot.

Ena Burns and Eliza went shopping at Dyers’. Ena's light eyes were hungry as they roved over the soft crumply baby-things. It wasn't that she had another coming, even that she thought of childbearing except as one of the inevitable, irritating punctuations which break the long sentence of life. But the cold little red-haired creature beside her, not showing it yet, only a bit pale and dreamy about the eyes, picked up things that crumpled light and sweet as flowers, and said, ‘I'll have this,’ ‘I'll take that,’ for all the world as if she were a duchess. Her clothes were good, too—a narrow dark green frock that wouldn't look so comfortable on her inside two months, a prancy little hat of leather. She wasn't like some, crying their eyes out with the shame of it. You could see she didn't like the idea of Mrs Molloy, who had been good enough to bring Polly into the world, and Gert, and little, darling Tessie, the one that Ena had loved best of the lot.

Thin blue dirty milk in the cans… summer sickness, she'd better go into the hospital, Mrs Burns. Nonsense, we'll have her right as a page 198 trivet in no time. No, you must wait, Mrs Burns, Doctor is on his rounds. I'm sorry, Mrs Burns, there was nothing we could do. Oh, no.… None of that for green-and-leather; a decent hospital, and a doctor with chloroform in case her high-and-mightiness might have to find out a little of what real life is like; and these white baby-things that crinkled up—all for being no good. Yet Ena didn't want green-and-leather to stop buying. The mere sight of the things being folded away, their swish against the crackling brown paper, gave her pleasure. She would have liked to go on and on, buying the store out. Afterwards they went downstairs and ate at the cafeteria; at least, green-and-leather looked sick and said it was a little to hot for her to eat, and Ena stolidly ate her way through from pie and Worcester sauce to peche Melba, for which green-and-leather couldn't do anything less than pay.

Within a fortnight, Ena started taking the starch out of green-and-leather. To her own surprise, she found it was quite easy. She could go to lengths she wouldn't have believed. Starch on top, softy underneath. She asked Eliza to give her a hand about the house in the mornings, watched for a few days, then pulled on her scarlet beret, went out, and got herself a job at the shoe-factory. She said to Bill, ‘Mrs White said she don't mind helping, Bill,’ and Bill agreed that the extra bit of money would go handy. He was embarrassed, his big red-brown hands caressing the whippet bitch beneath the table. When women wanted to fight, his motto was, leave them in the ring and let them go to it. Nothing was ever said, but by the way his wife handed green-and-leather her food at table, he knew there was a war on. Ena took peculiar pleasure in leaving her bedroom for Eliza to fix, the double bed hot and tousled. She was weak in her kidneys since little Tessie had come and gone again. If Eliza left anything undone, Ena moved about with a tight, shut mouth, but Polly came sidling up. ‘Mummy says you didn't shake the mattresses proper this morning.’ The summer swelled like a great red child in the belly of a sky, and the house became filled with whirring flies. Sometimes they caught in cobwebs, and their death-agonies… whirr, whirr, whirrr… made Eliza sick. It was like having your brain drilled through. ‘We'll soon fix them,’ said Ena, and came home with long spirals of dark-brown fly-paper, which swung directly over the table as she layed out the unchanging frankfurts. On them the brown flies stuck and buzzed; if you listened to them long enough, their buzz was the scream of maddened horses, of every scrap of life trying to break free from death. Ena watched and smiled. Bill's big disconsolate hands cossetted the whippet bitch, and the old man shunted himself about the kitchen, page 199 his stump sticking through his crutch. Sometimes Polly came edging up, lonely little yellow-haired elf-child. ‘Tell us a story. Tell Polly a story. Tell Polly again.’ Sometimes she ran lithely out into the yard of broken bricks or the flat street, and the yells of the little boy next door came down. ‘She's hitting my cut. She's hitting my cut.’

You were never clean, Eliza thought, until you'd got away from that house where the flies buzzed. Green, the stalky withered green of a Sydney park, was quite a long way off, but she got there, and sat on a bench sewing. The baby-coat, made like a midshipman's jacket, was so ridiculous that she knew at once it could never be worn, but she did not throw it away. One night, coming in, she turned on the kitchen light. The walls were covered with great black crawling things. They had wings, they might fly on you.… She shrieked, her hands brushing ineffectually at her dress, and Bill came running down the stairs. Bill was a Samaritan. ‘Fuss over a few roaches,’ grunted Ena, sleepily irritable. She was tired after her day at the shoe-factory, but besides her pay got all her shoes dirt cheap, red sandals, white canvas shoes for summer.

Thunder and lightning. Great cold blue flashes, perfectly silent across the sky, followed by the splitting peals. The sky was a blue flame-flower, you could burn in it, freeze in it. Great drops fell down, like marbles. You could hear their roundness break. Ena came in and slammed the bedroom window down.

It was a nightmare, but it had the saving grace of almost complete unreality: to be all the time in a daze, heavy and stupid, too heavy to save yourself. But the milk-floats were the trouble, jarring over the rough broken streets from dawn till about six. At nights Timothy came back in a ship, not to Sydney, to Wellington. There were the bluegums, gleaming and steadfast, there the wavering columns of light in the harbour water. The ship's cabin had the old furze smell of his tweed coat, the one coat Eliza had ever seen him wear. There was no quarrel between them, though everything was known: only the quick, ecstatic flinging back into old companionship, old laughing love. But somehow they were never able to land, though they could see the streets steep in front of them, black and silver, wet with moonlight as with heavy scouring rain.

A man in a café stabs another man through the cheek with his fork. Funny to see. Another man speaks in the pictures, follows, only a little drunk. Somebody to talk to, perhaps. Why is it that one being a man, one being a woman who is going to have a baby, matters? I'd talk to almost anyone, gladly, but you can see what an impossible page 200 position.… Vaguely she turned and wandered up the street, followed by the drunken man's ‘Gor bless you. Gor bless you, lady.’

Another man said that. The doctor to whom she went when she wanted to feel a little less ill. He scowled at first, his face pursed up.

‘I don't do that sort of thing myself. But I'll give you a letter.…’

‘Oh, that isn't what I meant at all. It's only that I felt so sick, and I didn't know what to do about it. I want the baby.’

The doctor said, ‘You want the baby?’ His tired face stared down for a moment. Then he scribbled out a prescription. ‘God bless you, my dear. God bless you.’

Ena had told her about the street called Abortionists’ Row. It looked quite respectable from the outside. She went there now, and walked down it in the slow drizzle of rain, thinking about the doctor and the baby. That she had said, ‘I want the baby,’ even accidentally, made a difference. A little hard knot of defiance formed in her throat. The shabby old red houses looked out through their bleared eyes, but they weren't everything. Beyond loomed the night, lace-edged with foam at Coogee and Manly, filled with just that crisp black blowing softness which had been all wonder a little time ago. It hasn't changed at all, she thought, it's only myself. It's one of those dreams when you come on wearing no knickers, or something like that, and are terrified out of your wits in case all the staring eyes concentrate upon you. But, Lord, you wake up. I'm going to wake up.

She walked on through the full maze of the little boxed streets, whose nonentity became sinister when one had passed twenty of the same shape and size. Gramophone music lurched out between the long beaded fringes which covered the doors. But in some streets, silence hung like a thick cloud, and all the street-lamps were smashed. There were Dalmatian cafés, and straggle-lettered notices said ‘Good beds 1/6.’ One man spoke; then, grinning with his broken teeth, he said, ‘Aw, you needn't try to kid me, girlie.’ Of the men she did not feel at all afraid. The women, sullen at the street corners, were more ominous. As they moved, the great full breasts under their sleazy jumpers swung like udders, their sullen faces and feet might tread the world down. But more than that was the voiceless, lightless cry of the streets, and its words were, ‘I kill.’ What brutal hand pressed them down? What stirred the filth into the blue thin milk, so that little Tessie died; and made the women these heavy things, and the men scuttling crabs under the vast stone of darkness? There was something to be done. As from a cellar the lean white tentacles of a plant reach up for chlorophyll, so all this world brutally demanded light. And it was right. It was right that a page 201 million should suffer, if they were irrelevant to that climbing purpose.

She was looking for the smell of the gorse. Dark nights in New Zealand, she reminded herself, always mean the smell of the gorse. She did not find it, but came out at last on a sea place, cliffs cracking immense over the pearl and ebony fans of the waves, which spread and dissolved far below. For a moment, hearing the sonorous voices of eddies in unseen caverns, she thought, ‘I'll throw myself over, that's what I'll do,’ and the purpose seemed sane and beautiful, the calmest thing left in life. But a stray cat sleeked against her legs, and she spoke to it gently. Its little singing-box expanded inside its chest. It was so pleased to be alive, alive and in conversation.

She knew it was a lie that she hated life: a lie that she hated the streets, and Bill, and Ena, and Polly. They were right, they were the resistless ones.… Only in this life at least, the barrier between them was too high to be broken down. The dark grew up in little thornbushes, its cold black winds jagged her cheeks and fingers. The cat purred and arched, flinging himself, in a crescendo of little growling noises, against her knees.