The Godwits Fly
Chapter Four — O Rome, My Country
O Rome, My Country
‘You're putting more coal on that wretched stove. How do you expect me to pay the bills, and Sandra with the soles nearly dropping off her shoes?’
Sometimes, with a rumble of protest, John would drop his book and come to bed. Sometimes he swore, slammed the door, told the world that it was his house and his money, and stretched out his long legs again in front of the stove. The book war was much more difficult for Augusta that the coal one, because she couldn't localize it in the house, where a whisper was audible through the jerry-built walls and lumps of coal rattled like falling bricks. When John was in his early political and atheistic stage, he spent even his tobacco money on books, and then went about looking so miserable that Augusta had to scratch out housekeeping items, and give him his two ounces of Navy Plug Cut.
He wanted to know; eagerly, obsessively he wanted to know the insides and contents of things settled for Augusta by Providence and the British Constitution. Once John had read his books, he was usually through with them. He didn't care to keep and touch them, as the children tried to keep everything they had once liked, even the baby sparrow that eventually had to be buried in a cardboard box under the coprosma hedge. (And then they had tried to play Lazarus, and Sandra, her blue eyes solemn as an angel's, had informed Carly, ‘Lord, it is the third day, and he stinketh,’ which was true.)
Augusta, though she grumbled whenever a new book appeared, and called most of them either filth or seditious rubbish, bought a bookcase at an auction sale, and conscientiously dusted the green and gold bindings. But John buttoned them under his greatcoat and sneaked them out, to be sold at fourpence each to his friend Carl Withers, who was an I.W.W. (‘I won't work,’ Augusta translated.)
The book-raids meant another cry in the night.
‘What's happened to those Waverley novels? Don't say you've gone and sold them for more of your trash. The miserable few pence you get for it, and then bring home some awful thing.…’page 42
It was useless; the Lake poets, the pepper-and-salt philosophers, made their brief appearance on the bookcase, were gutted in a night by John, and then returned to Carl Withers. Some, which Augusta said weren't fit to be in the same house with children, lay in the top of the high dresser, behind the money-boxes and Sandra's codliver oil and malt.
Eliza dipped into the bookshelf. Almost everything was incomprehensible, but one book, gold-lettered, made waves splash into the room, sharp, angry and strong.
O Rome, my country, city of the soul,
The orphan of the heart must turn to thee,
Lone mother of dead empires… And control
In his shut breast his petty misery.…
Dost thou flow
Old Tiber, through a marble wilderness?
Rise, with thy yellow waves, and mantle her distress.1
Waves, yellow Tiber waves, and a black-cloaked man standing with his arms flung out, while they hissed greedily around his feet. Eliza liked reciting the verses. At school Miss Curzon, the senior lady teacher, said with her buttoned-up smile: ‘And I wonder how much of that our little Eliza understands?’ as if understanding descended on you, like the Holy Ghost, when you had gone into thick ankle-length tweed skirts and turned sour. And Mr Duncan advised her to leave poetry alone and stick to mathematics. But at home, sometimes she could be almost impenetrably lonely, hedged about with a blue-andgold thicket of gas-flames.
‘Eliza, don't recite while you're washing up the dishes. Don't leave those forks to the last, they'll get all cold and zamzoid. How often have I got to tell you?’
In the quick dark of winter, the kitchen was filled with broken flames, rather stingy flames, dancing on shale coal, shining back from brass hooks on the dresser, where all the cups hung in a row, John's big rose-flowered moustache cup jutting out at the end. In the dining-room, which was never used for meals, but had the bookcase and sham leather chairs, Carly and Eliza did their homework. To make up for being away from the stove, they had a kerosene heater, a long, sad animal in blue enamel, with a little flame that twitched up and down behind a yellow pane if one moved a lever. Carly, her long brown hair brushed and sedate for the night, heard Eliza's tables; but Eliza was always finished first, and ran to the bookcase, to mutter page 43 poetry which sounded like rubbish to Carly, angry, incomprehensible rubbish.
‘If you don't do your homework properly you'll fail in your exams, and they'll put you back,’ she said. She looked like an owl—not the big owls that hoot and chase mice; the very little ones, with fluffy feathers and wide, scared eyes. In her owl eyes was caught the shine of the gas-light. Eliza only answered, ‘No, they won't,’ but to Carly the examinations were nightmares. If she failed to get her Proficiency, she thought, if her name were called out before the whole class, ‘Competency’, or just ‘Failed’, she would die.
Only one thing could be worse—the thing that made her run home as soon as cooking-class was out. She liked wearing apron and cuffs and baking things in little pie-dishes, she liked the warm feel of flour on her fingers; but all the time, at the back of her mind, Carly was thinking, ‘Suppose anything has happened to Mother? Suppose she's dropped dead?’ Sometimes pictures came, and she could see her mother lying beside the stove, with a big blue mark on her forehead. Then a great terror and loneliness filled her. If Augusta was close at hand, peeling potatoes, or making the old hand-machine whirr as she ran up hailstone muslin for Sandra's new best dress, she could creep in and look at her mother, or put a hand on her arm. But if it happened while Carly was at school, she couldn't concentrate. She could only sit crouching, waiting for the bell to ring and let her go. And sometimes then they kept her in.
Augusta never said anything about her children's looks except ‘As good as many, and better than some,’ though everyone knew Sandra was pretty. But of herself she said frankly that she was no beauty: a tall, spare, sad-faced woman, with dark red hair, grey eyes, and lips that turned down. She never wore anything in the house but print frocks, and for going out a costume called ‘my pepper-and-salt,’ and the fuzzy strip of astrakhan, ‘my stole.’ Those were detachable bits of her. When she was in street dress, her red torch of hair went out under the 2/11d straw hats she got at Mr Ebery's, and a thick black veil was tied under her chin. Mr Ebery came to New Zealand on the same boat as the Hannays, and had done very well with his bargain store. He was a waxen-white, smiling man with a tiny dark moustache, and often came out from behind his counter to chat with Augusta. But though Carly often pretended that Mr Ebery said magnanimously, ‘Here, Mrs Hannay, take one of my rose-coloured 15/11d hats,’ he never did.
Carly liked to ask her mother about the dresses she had worn when she was a little girl, especially if the hand-machine was running; that page 44 was such a smooth, whirring, pleasant sound, a sound of puckered dreams, falling into rows of even stitching. Augusta said the prettiest she ever had was a sage-green delaine, with little jet buttons all the way down the back, from neck to hem, and a black velvet sash. And she had an eighteen-inch waist. ‘Everybody had, in those days. But I thought myself somebody, I can tell you,’ she would finish, with her dry little laugh.
To think of her mother in the sage-green delaine reassured Carly. It made her feel less as though she might come back any day to an empty house, and stand there crying, quite uselessly, sickeningly, because when people are dead you put them in a box and throw clay on them, like the baby sparrow Eliza had found fallen from its nest, opening and shutting its beak to show a tiny flat pink tongue inside, before its eyes glazed and its head dropped over sideways. Its beak wouldn't shut, so they put a nasturtium flower into it when they buried it. She would have liked to play talking-games after dark about their mother's girlhood, but she was slow at putting her ideas into words, while Eliza could rattle off at once, ‘We're invited to Cressil Burns’ party, and we're taking her a yellow satin hanky sachet with violets on between us, and there's hundreds-and-thousands on her birthday cake and pink candles, and green jelly in cups, and crackers, mine's got a ruby ring inside, what has yours got, Sandra?’
Carly was certain which one of her parents she loved best. Even when she was little, she knew that she hardly loved John at all, and he didn't love her. It was because of Mummy.… For Eliza it was different, and Carly found that hard to forgive, because you had to be on one side or the other. If you were Carly, and heard John putting more coal on the fire after ten, you had to call out, ‘Mummy, Daddy's doing it again.’
When Eliza brushed out Augusta's hair in the dark, she had no doubts. Under the long, smooth strokes of the whalebone it crackled and crisped, and gave off pouncing sparks of blue, and Augusta talked about the black swans in Western Australia, and the honeybirds dipping their long bills into stiff flowers on Table Mountain. Or if you were sick, as Eliza was when she took the medicine by itself instead of three drops in a wineglassful of water, Augusta was the one who helped. But it was John who understood about poetry, though sometimes he laughed at it.
When he heard her saying, ‘O Rome, my country,’ one day, he gave her his queer, whipped-dog look.
‘You love that, don't you?’
‘Yes, Daddy.’page 45
‘Then keep it. It's all we've got.’
He never sold Lord Byron to Carl Withers, or The Heroes, or any book Eliza said she specially liked. And she loved him, too, when he played soldiers with the Calver Street boys, and had them all round him, listening to how he won his medal in the Boer War; or when they went mushrooming in the steep, stony hills behind the reservoir, and there was one great rock called ‘the Druid's Stone’, because sunset ran on it like blood, and all over the grey scrub-bushes hung the fragile foam-wreath of clematis.
But when he quarrelled it was hateful. His voice got too big, filling the house like the smoke-djinn that escaped from the bottle. Everybody joined in, blinded and frightened, and Carly wept, ‘Don't you dare to bully my mother,’ and Augusta, standing at bay, said, ‘Don't look like a devil at your own children.’ The veins stood out on his forehead, and he swore at God and the British Empire; half the time it was some tiny thing that set him off. He seemed to be two people rolled into one—the thin, brown one who laughed, and the thin, red one who quarrelled.
How can you hate? How can you properly take sides? It was Eliza's father who took them over the hills to fly kites in the evenings. The long thin tails of the kites lay on the air, wriggling like great serpents, and their flat diamond-shaped heads dragged hard, trying to escape. Summer smelt brown and lordly in the grasses. But when the two working-men came to mend the kitchen door, and Eliza was reciting, and Augusta sat at her sewing-machine, one of the men opened the door. They stood there listening, and she felt as if she were on fire—proud, making the bells ring and the skies burn, in an old poem that went out of her head afterwards. And Augusta, though as a general rule she didn't like working-men, and was most annoyed if Eliza smiled at the tram-conductor when she gave him her penny, let them stand listening. Then one of the men said admiringly, ‘She's a fair little wonder, Missus,’ and Augusta agreed, ‘Not bad.’ The corners of her down-turned mouth twitched. She was actually pleased.
Augusta and John couldn't have been more different, Eliza thought. Augusta said, ‘Dear old England,’ and had been longing and longing to go there ever since she was a little girl, and sat in the crotch of the great fig tree in the West Australian orchard. And she had worked her way half across the world, to Africa; but then she got married, and had Carly, Eliza and Sandra instead of finishing up in London. John, though he had been in England at school, and would show them pictures of forests and cottages if he felt in the mood, said, ‘Curse your bloody British Empire,’ when he was angry. John was an atheist, page 46 and read all the books about it that he could get from Carl Withers. Augusta sent the children to Sunday School every week, and Carly brought home texts illuminated with puffy silver letters, lilies and lambs.
On Sunday evenings, Augusta took them to Saint Monica's, a wooden building with a pointed, raftered roof, made fierce and dignified by its shadows, and the enormous carved eagle whose yellow eyes blazed from the lectern. Eliza liked the fused, singing voices, always accompanied by funny little froggy croaks from the church-warden, Mr Herring, who sat at the end of their pew. But when they sat down, she began to dream, and Carly, pinching her arm, would whisper, ‘You're not allowed to go to sleep in church.’
She wasn't quite asleep. She could smell new kid gloves, and violets, and see the round of Gertie Carstairs’ cheek. Gertie was the prettiest girl in Sunday-school, she looked so smooth and finished off.… Eliza could hear the Zoo lions roaring, far away, lonesome and grim, and before she knew it slipped into pretending that Blackmane had got loose, and the only way to escape was by crawling out along the rafters, right to the middle, where it was too high for Blackmane to jump. You could do it by swinging from the cord that held back the red plush curtain. In the body of the church, Blackmane growled and ate people.
The minister said suddenly, ‘The Prince of the Power of the Air’; and there were dark, dark eyes, eyes she had always known, looking at her. He was like the black-cloaked man who had written ‘O Rome, my country’, but much taller and sadder.
‘Eliza, put your penny in the bag.’ It was a deep red bag, and pennies fell louder than threepenny bits, which made a thin, smirking jingle.
‘You'll drop it if you don't wake up.’
‘Anyhow, you were sitting on your foot. You were squatting, like an old nigger woman.’ You could always get back at Carly over that; she had a trick of sitting with her feet curled under her, like the Kaffirs in Africa.
Cold outside: black cold, pierced by heavy winds. People in blurred coats said, ‘Good night, Mr Harcourt,’ and shook hands with the minister. They moved away through the night to their houses, their edges melting into darkness. It wasn't possible to think of them separately, as having babies and bicycles and offices, they were just shapes. The Prince of the Power of the Air.… His country was all low thorn-bushes, nuggets of dark.
John got the parts of a History of Mankind, which ran in small page 47 print and coloured plates through a weekly magazine. Carl Withers sold them to him for sixpence, and bought them back for a penny. Some of them upset him dreadfully. He came rushing in and slammed the door, his hair standing up on end, his thin face flaming.
‘Look at that. That's your capitalist system. That's what they do to men. Look at that, I tell you.’
Augusta looked. ‘It happened two thousand nine hundred years ago,’ she said tonelessly.
‘They're all the same. Capitalists—murderers. Look, Eliza, that's what your mother wants me to put into Parliament. That's what she votes for herself.’
‘Must you defile the eyes of your own children?’
‘Let them see what the world is. Look, Eliza!’
Eliza looks, and sees a picture of some slaves flayed alive by an Emperor. They lie huddled, not unlike the raw pink rabbits that have to be soaked overnight in the sink before they can be stewed. The Emperor stands over them with his whip, looking rather like Daddy in a temper.
John fires off his parting shot.
‘That's your Imperialism. That's your God for you.’ Augusta, hard tears forcing themselves between her eyelids, continues to pare very thin rings from the potatoes.
Two people, solitaries, dreamers, winning out of their first environment, find a dog-chain twisting their ankles together. Still they fight for their escape; one lonely, shy, suffering under a sense of social injustice, for escape into the steaming companionship, the labouring but powerful flanks of mankind: the other fights for what blood and tradition have taught her, fields of bluebells ringing all on the one exquisitely lengthened note, courage, craftsmanship, the order which for her has existed only in a dream, so that she cannot know if its grey stone pile be crumbling today. They are young when it begins; their words, like their veins, are hot and full of passion. They share a double bed, and have children. One day an ageing man looks round, and finds himself wrestling with an ageing woman, her face seamed with tears.
Mrs Rainer asked Eliza to tea after her eighth birthday. Eliza thought Sylvia's mother very wonderful—a small, dark, Frenchified creature, with fluttering white hands and no household coarseness. When Eliza asked if she liked poetry, she clasped her hands and cried, ‘I pulse to it—I pulse to it.’ On the table stood a great crystal dish of orange jelly, which wobbled as Mrs Rainer pulsed. Her dark page 48 eyes turning reproachfully on Sylvia, she added, ‘Sylvia breathes a different air. She doesn't pulse, as I do.’
‘Oh, come on out for a walk,’ said Sylvia. Mrs Rainer said, ‘Show Eliza where she can make herself comfortable, dear,’ and Sylvia led the way to a closet papered with pictures of tiny snarling dogs, bulldogs in hunting pink. As they went out of the garden to the flanges of the sharp hills, green with winter's short, frost-bitten grass, Sylvia said, ‘Don't pay any attention to Mother. She's like that.’
‘I think your mother's wonderful.’ Eliza wanted to add, ‘And your lavatory,’ but it didn't sound quite nice. They came in sight of a brown pond, corralled by hawthorns on whose boughs still hung a few shrivelled berries, hearts for daws to peck at. Behind rose a crenellated building of sour grey stone.
‘That's the Home of Mercy,’ said Sylvia. ‘They've got babies there with two heads.’
‘How do you know? Have you seen them?’
‘I know a girl who did. She was a Mick. Are your family Micks?
‘We go to Saint Monica's. Carly's in the Bible Class.’
‘Oh, that's C. of E., same as us. That's all right. I thought you mightn't be, because such a lot of Micks live down near Calver Street. They believe if you bite the wafer at Holy Communion, it bleeds. They've got to swallow it whole, even if it nearly chokes them. Kathie James is a Mick, and once her cousin kept the wafer till he got home, and bit it, just to see, and blood fizzled all over the stove. He had to confess to the priest before it stopped fizzling.’
‘Ugh, how horrid.’
‘Well, that's what Kathie says. And the nuns eat frogs. This is their frog-pond. They catch them and eat their hind legs.’
They lay flat in the mud beside the pond; the weedy water slipped through their palms. Certainly there were frogs, some like commas, some kicking lustily with inch-long legs. Sylvia found an old jam-tin, and they put the frogs in water.
‘Catch a toad and you'll get warts,’ she said. Over the saddle of the hills, so high that sunset balanced there like a red sword before burning down into the valleys and the creeks massed with watercress, the last of the afternoon light slid coldly radiant.
‘Eliza, do you like Mr Duncan?’
Better to be offhand. ‘He's all right,’ said Eliza. ‘He's a bit bald on top, isn't he?’
‘I think he's silly,’ said Sylvia, pirouetting. ‘You do like him, Eliza; page 49 you're fibbing. If you were a Mick you'd have to confess, and the priest would make you do something awful.’
‘I couldn't tell you.’
‘You're only saying it, because I beat you in essay. I'm going to climb the hill.’
‘A man hanged himself up there.’
‘Over in the Happy Valley. On a tree. And there's a haunted house; look, you can just see it. One day a boy was going past its windows, and he saw a terrible face looking out.’
Suddenly the pink and fawn that was Sylvia, the glints on her curled hair, shattered into pieces of laughter. ‘Silly… Silly…’ she called, and raced away down the hill. On the top of a hummock she stood and shouted, ‘Mary Bray knows how babies are born, and so does Isabel Yoland, so there.’
Eliza climbed a little way by herself, over a creek where cows’ hoofs had made huge squelchy prints in the mire, and buttercups shone like painted tin. If you put one under your chin and it made a yellow reflection, you stole butter; but she didn't, only the dark streaks from gravy dripping. There were no paths, and the hills looked as though no one ever climbed them, only cattle and sheep, whose uneven grooves spiralled towards the top. Beyond lay the Kappy Valley, and the man who hanged himself jerked and thumped softly against the wind, so that the rope, which had worn a white place for itself, creaked on the bough. Why was the face looking out of the window terrible? If you said a horrible face, it only meant tongue out and eyes crossed, like Billy Rames made. But terrible was different. Very white, very white, and always smiling.
And she did like Mr Duncan. And babies being born was one of the things Augusta said you must never talk about, a kind of little curtain dropped down hard in the mind if anyone even spoke of it. But not knowing as much as Mary and Isabel was silly, when she was top of the class. Sylvia had scored all round.
Going towards Calver Street, she thought suddenly of the Glory Hole. Wherever you went, you came to the edge of it.
That night, Augusta and John had a thunder-and-lightning row. Eliza didn't hear it all, but part of it was about the British Empire. A few days later, the corded tin trunks were out in the hall again, and Sandra was told she couldn't take her hobby-horse, it was too clumsy to pack.
‘Where are we going, Mummy?’page 50
‘To Australia,’ said Augusta. ‘Your Uncle Rufus sent the passage money.’
John said, ‘If you insist on making a fool of yourself,’ and slammed out of the house. Carly ventured timidly, ‘Is Daddy coming, Mummy?’
Augusta looked at her, with grey eyes perfectly blank, like stones in water. Eliza had seen them like that before, but not Carly.
‘Hold your tongue, Carlotta.’
Carly's mouth quivered. She crept away silently to tell her dolls, Mr Trinkle and Mrs Trimble, squatting like an old Kaffir woman beside the green packing-case doll-house. John had got tired of making it, so it had no front, but stood wide open. In the apex, which Eliza should have kept clean, strands of cobweb puffed, filtering dust. Eliza's dolls, though christened with grandiose names—Athene, Andromeda, Perseus, Cressida—were unwashed, unsmacked and irreligious. But Carly loved hers. She told Mr Trinkle and Mrs Trimble that they were going to Australia.
‘And we've got lots of uncles and aunts and great-uncles and greataunts, and grandmother-and-grandfather, and all the little cousins, and the second cousins. And one of our great-uncles was an Admiral and the Shah of Persia gave him a sword. And people in Melbourne said they'd rather have old Dr Devlin drunk than any other doctor sober, and Great-Aunt Christobel is very witty.’
The polite Japanese faces of the dolls looked unimpressed; a sunbeam flew in, making a patch of wobble against blue walls. Carly tried to feel, ‘Poor Daddy,’ but in the curled-up place, inside her heart, she couldn't.
That night they played they had fowls, and had to leave them behind when they went to Australia.
‘Mine was called Speckly,’ said Sandra. ‘She used to lay lots of eggs every day; an’ we had her boiled.’
‘Mine was Whitey,’ said Eliza. ‘She was a Leghorn.’
Sandra's inexorable little voice said, ‘An’ we had her roasted.’ Inexplicably, Eliza's heart felt torn in two.
‘No, we didn't,’ she said. ‘You can't roast Whitey.’
‘Yes, we did,’ said Sandra. ‘We chased her and wrung her neck and cut her head off and had her roasted for dinner. She never laid any eggs, anyhow.’
Eliza choked out: ‘She did,’ and began to cry in great sobs. A patch of cold at the back of her head told her, ‘You know if you start you can't stop,’ but she didn't care. She heard her own sobs louder and louder, and they seemed quite separate from herself. Carly pattered across the floor, a ghost in her nightgown.page 51
‘Don't Eliza. You know you're only putting it on to make a scene, and Mummy'll hear you. I promise we won't kill your fowl if you stop before she hears, I promise truly. Your fowl does lay eggs.’
‘She hasn't got a real fowl,’ said Sandra dispassionately.
‘Don't’ Carly implored. But their voices, and the restless knuckletapping of the wattle tree against the window, and the small flame when Augusta, her hair down, held up the lamp and said, ‘What is this?’ were all irrelevant. Then John came in, and said he couldn't understand her. ‘Stop that row, you're making my head ache.’ Blue waves slid easily out, rippling into dark, and John was a rough shadow at the bottom of the bed.
‘It's cold,’ he said miserably. ‘I'il put another coat over you.’ She felt the soft, thick weight of cloth flung down. It was time to go to sleep, time to let sobbing become monotonous and soft as the waves on a still day at Island Bay. There were prawns in the pools, green prawns with transparent bodies like wave-colour, and they caught them in nets made out of canary-seed bags.