The Godwits Fly
Chapter Twenty-One — No More of Me You Knew
No More of Me You Knew
In the Blue Mountains the wildflowers pressed their millions of faces, all one peering eye, up through milky heat-haze and against the wide blue of the sky. There were other blues beneath, colours shredding into folds and folds, torn mists, nymph-like water-hues in the weeping Valley of the Waters, where through and under the creeping tears that seared the rock-walls, tiny green ferns trembled, each frond a precarious balance for a troy weight of dew. The ant chimneys, tall and very quaint, stood among the redgums; funny little beasts lived here in the mountains, Kay kept pointing them out as they folded up or ran by. That was a goanna, doesn't it look proud, the way it walks with its head and tail in the air? That was a wallaby, like a little old man.
You stood on a peak, a flat spur of rock running out into the void, with your thin light body propped up by the winds, which streamed imperiously, almost visible in their long robes, down and up the gullies. The screech of falling rock came up, and the rattle of the hard waters. All the time, somebody kept saying, ‘Isn't this lovely? Oh, boy, isn't this air glorious?’ and you said ‘Yes, it's very beautiful, Yes it's glorious.’ Better to lie still at night between the two reds of moon and smouldering campfire. The world was loud with insects, and at dawn you could see the ground under the blankets exuding streams of red ants; life marching on, a harsh colour, but seemingly not at all impatient or angry.
Sometimes Eliza wished the clay soil could make itself less red.
Three bluegums in the cemetery, faceless white daisies; and she had forgotten, utterly forgotten what the cemetery's name was; only that you crossed a bridge over blue water to get to it, and Kay, pointing, said there were oysters down there. Lot 125, Section 4. She remembered that perfectly, and the old man who had given her a lift to the next station in his gig when she missed the last train, but she didn't like to ask the cemetery's name, because Kay would think her absurd. She thought, ‘He's little and lost and hasn't got an identity, only a face, and I'm almost the only one who saw it. Not that I asked much for page 209 him.’ At other times, she put it out of her mind. Best not to think of it, to be a body balancing on a clifftop, no longer at all ungainly or needing to be hidden away: to say quickly the light, bantering things required by Kay's brown young men. The myriads of soft flannel flowers crowded out space, and everlastings with their paper hearts fringed in prickly petals, ruby and umber. Dead flowers, you could only last by being dead. The air was cool here, a fragrant stinging coolness in which the upreaching heat of summer was dissolved. At night they sang in the campfire's circle, then crawled under their blankets, complaining a little about the soldier ants and the hardness of the ground. There was nothing else, it was a hiatus in time and space, and in the mornings the squatting backs of the boys looked like those of brown savages, as they brewed the first coffee.
At one rock water came widely down in lace flounces. As you watched, these turned to stalactites, moving with a slow hypnotic movement that sent the green and blue world, cut from its moorings, steadily sliding up and up. In a while this movement was inverted, and the pointed branches of water-trees led the sight downwards, a thin spume of snow on their heavy fir-like green. Your body became a mere shelter for your mind, which watched, in detachment, all this written in water. Images came and went easily, like frost changing shape on a window-pane.
I want to go home. I want to go home.
Kay said, ‘But, honey, you can't want to go back to that man, he's just a yellow dog. He didn't even write to you, and you might have been alive or dead.’
‘But he was so exactly like the baby. Even its hands. I feel I've got to talk about it, don't you see? It's not himself, it's the baby.’
The brown boys got out of the car on the way home, to fetch them huge cones piled with ice-cream. But all the way was blowing with dust, billows of it, flying into eyes and hair and heart. You did nothing but sit patiently between them. Kay was a little worried, a little angry because she was anxious. But I'm not ill, darling Kay. Truly I'm all right. And I'll write to you, every week. Oh, I hate saying good-bye.
Kay was gone, and the ship pitched its squat length heavily along grey sea. From the bathroom portholes Eliza could see little circumferences of grey, heaving and flecked with white. They looked very cold. Suddenly in her body something seemed to break. She stood still, then steadied herself towards a basin, and watched the blood stream down. She felt not sick but dumb, like a beast that has been hit with a mallet and does not know how to cry out before it dies. But her body wouldn't die, her hands still mechanically gripped the silver- page 210 plated rails. Presently that was done, and she got herself back to the cabin, afraid to speak a word to anyone. The woman in the top berth looked at her with tired, resentful eyes. The rhythm of the boat was very monotonous… throb, throb, throb, heavy and plaintive, like the march of the red ants. All endeavour could be made to fit that octave.
Over in Sydney, she thought, at this time of the year all the gardens would be parched and brown, and I'd be lying with nothing on, probably in a cold bath that would feel hot and sticky, wondering how on earth I'd ever get cool again. Here the Christmas lilies, wet with the rain that fell the day of her coming back, were broad white cups, their gold stamens sticking up, nearly drowned. She thought, ‘How thirsty they'd be in Sydney now, how terribly thirsty.’
She had no right in the world to come here, to be sitting in a hotel bedroom listening to this one man talk. For it had been perfectly understood between them, Eliza had said it herself—if my baby dies, you won't have to marry me, you needn't ever hear of me again. Dark eyes, dark hair, dark square-cut hands. Jim was saying, ‘I'm a married man.’ She moved her head from side to side. ‘That nice girl? Annie Carr?’
‘It was Mrs Wetherby.’
‘But she's quite old—how could you have done it, Jim? She's quite old, quite old.’ Jim's face was angry, and she said, ‘You must have married before I was out of the hospital.’ It was all unfair, uselessly unfair. You let the dead bury their dead; only, the labour of heaving their soil upwards, single-handed, without a week's delay, because they have to be out of sight this very minute. And she couldn't remember the name of the cemetery. She cried out, and Jim said in a voice which was quiet, yet twisted like his old bitter look, ‘You can't stay here. I'm taking you home.’
‘Then does your wife know?’
‘Yes. I had to tell her.’ Jim put his arm through Eliza's, and led her carefully down the hotel stairs. They were out in the dark streets, and he said again, ‘I had to tell her, you see.’ She did not listen. She walked by means of putting one foot in front of the other foot, until they were at the gate of a house, and Jim called out to its lighted doorway.
It was her twenty-first birthday, and Cecily was giving her a birthday tea; not anyone else, of course, just their three selves. After they had talked a little, and Eliza had promised not to cry any more or to tell anyone about the baby, they were perfectly reconciled. There was an iced cake, cut open darkly rich to show cherries and walnuts. Eliza said, ‘I never had any birthday party before, because my birthday is in the summer. We always picnicked at Day's Bay. And I was always page 211 promised a special one for my twenty-first; I'm twenty-one to-day.’ But while they smiled at her, wise and consoling, the table and the iced birthday cake went into a throbbing brownish-red colour which seemed to come from her forehead. She stood up and fell. She felt Jim help her up, towards the bedroom. ‘It doesn't matter,’ she said, polite through the scum of brownish colours, ‘I think to-morrow I'd better go straight away. Straight down to Wellington.’ She knew they would both be pleased at that, and in the morning Cecily was so kind, so heartily kind. Two young men were to drive Eliza part of the way, to the railway junction. ‘It won't do to have you looking like a little ghost,’ she said. ‘A girl can't ever let her face go to wrack and ruin.’ She dusted sweet-scented powder over Eliza's face. ‘Now just a touch of colour. There, doesn't that make all the difference?’ The painted face looked out with thick indifference from the mirror, it was like one of Carly's dolls, but sleepier. Jim waited outside by the hedge to say good-bye. He didn't say anything except again, ‘Auf wiedersehen.’ He broke off a piece of the dark velvety-red geranium growing in the hedge, and put it in the pocket of Eliza's coat. His mouth smiled uncertainly. There, he's gone, she thought, he's gone, and I didn't love him, I hadn't any right at all in that place. Now I've got to forget all about it. The car broke down on a white-blistered road between two gullies of fern, and the two boys were unhappy at keeping her so long in the sunshine. But she smiled at them and joked, sitting erect.
They said, ‘You're a sport,’ and the car limped at last into a garage. While they drank lemonade there, she could see great grey rats running along the rafters, looking down with beady eyes.
‘I won't go on to-night,’ she told them presently, ‘I'll stop here at this hotel. It looks quite comfy, and it won't be so tiring as going straight through in the one day.’ The boys waved good-bye, and she turned back to the hotel, through whose bedroom windows showed the sliding green of river enamelled with willow-leaves. When she had unpacked her night-things and tidied her hair, she went out to find a chemist's shop. The first chemist was curtly positive in his refusal to give her anything that would make her go into a sound sleep. But the second one sold her a dozen packages of a white fine-crystalled powder, and another one gave her tablets. By that time, there were no shops left to try in the little street. She took the powders and the tablets in her bedroom, all together, drinking the hot staled water out of the hotel carafe to wash them down. They tasted bitter. She lay down, watching the river slide by. Just before sleep had taken possession of the thin populous world of dreams there was a knock on her door. She stood upright, crossed the room and opened it. A man was page 212 in the hall, his face contorted in one of the queer apologetic smiles which sometimes people wear when they are lonely and ashamed. She remembered having seen him in the hotel lobby. He said something about having a talk, and smiled again. Eliza pushed the door to, and drove in the bolt. Sick things, mortally wounded things, they leave a trail of weakness on the air, and you follow. But I'm dying now, and there you can't follow me. The ringing of bells was very heavy in her ears as she walked again to the bed.
I can't be really alive, she thought, it's a dream. But the willow leaves shirred their pale brightness against her window, and in the river the gleams of sunlight caught and dinted like swooping dragonflies. Then she didn't know quite where to go, what to do. She dressed and walked through the town, and parts of it closed misty behind her, like the cemetery which held Lot 125, Section 4. She was in a green hot place, sitting by the lake's edge and watching. There was nothing else to do. She ate nothing, but thirst came, and presently she bought from a woman with a little sweet-stall a poisonously green bottle of soft drink. It was called Green Water. Its colour and acrid taste mixed with the river sliding under her hotel bedroom, the man who had pushed against her door, and the cold undine lake where once she had stood with Jim, looking down. I can't go back there, she thought; I must catch the train to-night. But she had no idea of really getting to Wellington, really trying to be alive. She wondered if the chemists would give her any more tablets or powders. Out of town, she found another little shop, and bought there all she could get. She didn't know the names of any drugs, except morphine, and that, she knew, she couldn't possibly get. Mention it, and they'd stare her out of the shop. She said, ‘Something to make me go to sleep, please,’ and the little sharp-faced man said this ought to fix it, he knew what insomnia was.
The train was in the station. Somehow it seemed the best idea to take the powders, and stand on one of the little black jolting platforms. When the train curled round the first rough bend, your drugged body would be jolted off, and everybody would say, ‘How sad—an accident.’ But she took the powders too soon. She saw the train standing in the station, knew as clearly as she had ever known anything in her life that she must walk quietly across the platform and board it. There was nothing more to be done, only that easy step. But everything went black dark, darkest dark.
She wakened in a little lighted room. Against her skin she could feel the prickling harshness of canvas, her arms were strapped close to her sides. But her hands were free, and quietly she began to unfasten the page 213 straps. A weary-looking girl in a nurse's cap nodded there, inhuman in the naked light. She roused suddenly, and called out. Then a young white-gowned man came in, and stood at the head of her bed; his hard voice said, ‘Well, young lady, where's the baby?’
Eliza said coldly, ‘My son is dead.’ Then it was black dark again, an escape, for that white-lit room, the easy curl of the doctor's lip as he stared down and said where's the baby, were a rape not of the body but of the soul.
The doctor next day was uneasy, jocosely polite.
‘Well, you gave us a scare that time. But there's somebody waiting to see you. We found two letters in your purse.’
When the strange young man entered the room, Eliza could not understand why they had ever let him in. He was nobody she knew. Yet vaguely, like words out of a broken sentence, the old answer to a riddle she had forgotten, he commended himself to her. He sat with his hat twirling between his knees, his fair thick hair brushed back, and said, ‘I'm very sorry that you've been ill.’
‘I've forgotten so many things; it's silly, isn't it? I'd be scared to let anyone know how much I've forgotten. But I can't…’
‘I'm Laurence Cardew,’ said the fair young man, ‘Timothy's brother. It was his letter in your purse, you see. Miss Hannay, I don't know how to tell you…’
Go on talking, go on twirling your hat and talking.
‘Is Timothy home yet? Or has he married and settled down in England? We were great friends, Mr Cardew.’
Laurence said, in quick, agitated jerks of speech, ‘He was always fond of you, far fonder than he'd ever admit, even to himself. About two days after he took ill, he got delirious, so there weren't any messages. It's a horrible thing, a hateful thing. I can hardly believe it even now.’
‘You mean that Timothy is dead, too?’
‘Three months after he landed in England. He had pneumonia and bronchitis. You know, that chest of his was always weak. He wrote home saying he'd struck a good job, and he sounded so happy, and then…’
‘But he really did die? Where did he die?’
‘I shouldn't have told you. They said you were all right now. He died in Birmingham. He'd just gone there.’
‘He went to England, and he died in Birmingham. I wonder if there was anyone there who knew him?’ Laurence sat twirling his hat, and Nurse opened the door.
‘There's another visitor for you.’page 214
‘Well, old dear,’ said Augusta. Her face looked seamed and ashengrey, she was wearing the horrible fabric gloves that burst their seams, or came undone at their tops. She smiled and said, ‘Well, old dear.’ Eliza kissed her on the cheek. But there wasn't any place on earth where you could lie still as long as you liked, whether you took tablets or not. No place on earth except Birmingham.