The Godwits Fly
Chapter Five — Follow the Boomerang
Follow the Boomerang
Mrs Protheroe, who had come over from Newtown to see the Hannays off, said, ‘With men, you never can tell.’ Augusta, wearing a new veil with black velvet spots, as well as my-pepper-and salt and my-stole, cried, ‘He can't have meant us to miss the boat, when I've bought the tickets. That would be waste—wicked, shameful waste.’ Mrs Protheroe shook her head and refused to know what men would do, and half an hour dwindled by, the children sitting in their new brown velvet cloaks on the boxes in the hall, sunlight dancing on the worn Chinese matting in their bedroom. Their father had refused to let the house, saying they would be back again, like the black cat, as soon as Augusta came to her senses.
At last Augusta called one of the Collie boys, and gave him sixpence to run out and find a cab, as the one John had promised to order hadn't come. The boy came back, spitting on his sixpence, and said there weren't any cabs anywhere, only old Nigger Jack's bottle-oh cart.
‘Well, you certainly can't go through the streets of Wellington with that awful darkie,’ pronounced Mrs Protheroe, who secretly felt that Augusta was in the wrong. Augusta clenched her hands.
‘Can't I? John did this on purpose. He wanted us to miss the boat, after I'd spent money on the tickets. It's downright dishonest.’
‘But a darkie—’
‘Or no Australia.’ To the Collie boy, Augusta said, ‘Tell Nigger Jack to bring his cart here this very minute.’ Carly began to sniff. She was frightened of black men.
Nigger Jack had his sack round his shoulders when his cart pulled up outside, and Mrs Protheroe said sharply, ‘For goodness and consideration's sake, driver, can't you take that off?’ His eyes rolled at her mournfully, funny treacle eyes with a spot of mist in each pupil. There was a big dip in his horse's back. Augusta said, ‘Come, children,’ but Eliza remembered that she hadn't said goodbye to her wattle tree. It was almost the first time she had thought of it as hers, since the night they came to Calver Street. Now she ran back into the bedroom, and breathlessly patted its thin brown branch, which rapped hard knuckles against the window. ‘Goodbye, my tree!’ ‘Eliza, come on!’page 53
Nigger Jack put his hand under their boots as they jumped up to the seat. Eliza felt her cloak swish against the harsh sack. They all started to remember things, as if this were darkness instead of broad daylight. Sandra cried, ‘Once I found a big walking-stick insect,’ and Carly, ‘Once I made some scent, but when I opened it, it smelt horrid, and I threw it down the drain.’ The cart was moving, jolting and hurting you where you sat down; but you could only hold tight, seeing the little houses jump past. From high up, they looked uncanny.…
Dancing on a whale washed up at Lyall Bay. Hundreds of children were taken to see it, and they danced up and down. Underfoot was nothing but slippery black, gashed with the yellow clay from their boots. ‘Now I am dancing on a whale.’ Once they had a lovely picnicday there, and cut huge doorstep sandwiches in a tiny hut on the beach. Sand drifted over the crusty bread, little grains fine as silver. They called it ‘Hunks House’, because the bread doorsteps were so thick, and the waves came curling, but they never went there again.…
And white, quivering egg-plants grew out of the wet ground, and felt like slippy flesh. Once there was an egg-plant in Ngaio and Jock Vaughan's backyard. The boys said, ‘If you leave an egg-plant grow, a little horse'll come out.’
Mr Duncan and Daddy.
Instinct was too strong for Nigger Jack. As the cart rattled, his strong, sad baritone chanted, ‘Bottle-oh, bottle-oh, bottle-oh.’ Augusta said, ‘Oh, driver, must you do that?’ and his muddy eyes stared at her, frightened. For a moment he was silent, then began chanting again, under his breath.
At the last moment, Daddy was a wet-looking red face down on the wharf, with forests of streamers bumping against it. He brushed them off impatiently, and their coloured ends dangled in the air. ‘Goodbye, old girl—goodbye, kiddies; come back soon.’
‘Mummy, isn't it a funny little room? Mummy, our beds are stuck on to the wall,’ said Sandra, tumbling about, enchanted. The noise of the engines was a soft thrumming. Then a green streak of water widened, and Eliza thought, ‘I'll jump overboard.’
‘Mummy, I feel sick; awfully, terribly sick.’ Carly spoke in a whisper, her face drawn. Sandra bounced on the edge of a bunk.
‘Carly's sick already. Carly's sick already. Sandra isn't sick. Mummy, can I sleep in the top little bed?’
Augusta pulled off her hat, tearing the new veil on a hatpin. She page 54 said loudly, dreadfully, ‘Children—flesh of your flesh, bone of your bone,’ and put her hands over her face.
Little bubbles, invisible except to eyes half-shut, streak up like dense steam from a kettle. They are going to Heaven. The sun writes in big, white letters and Morse flashes on the green uneven waves; Carly is drawing chalk hopscotch bases on the deck.
‘The captain is going to throw you overboard for making marks on his clean deck,’ Carly looks up with grey, startled eyes, sunlight cleaves the water like a great gold fin, a creasy wing settling.
Eliza says, ‘I was only making it up. I'll play hopscotch if you like.’
‘It's horrible to tell stories.’
‘You should have seen your face. It was pasty, like when you were sick.’
Eliza from the deckrail, or from the invisible funnel through which the yeasty bubbles are sucked up to God, watches them both. They are happening a long way off, and yet inside her. If she tries to explain this, she can only say, ‘I feel as if they were growing inside me,’ and people laugh. For how on earth can yourself grow inside yourself? How can tall, dank pillars of stone in a strange city, pillars with little dark bruises of spit, curl right through you, like fern-fronds?
Eliza, raising a white perspiring face from the pillows, thinks, ‘I was sick on curried crayfish crossing the Great Australian Bight.’ It turns into the first line of a ridiculous comic song. Her inside feels perfectly empty, and she is better since Mr Steward brought her a Nip. Sandra, in spite of her boasting, has been sick all the time, so sick that Augusta, tied to the cabin, has trusted Carly and Eliza to go to table with Mr Steward, a nice man in a white coat, who brings them things to eat; first bread-and-milk and plain broth, then, when they say they aren't a bit sick, Bombay duck and crayfish and a wonderful whole pineapple whose inside has been taken out and put back in pieces, mixed with other things. They fish into it with long silver spoons rattling slivers of ice.
Carly whispers, ‘Don't take so much, Eliza, and don't spill anything. Everybody's looking at us.’
A man at the table sits swallowing raw grey oysters.
‘I wonder if he swallows their pearls?’
‘Sssh,’ from Carly.
‘I wonder if he swallows them while they're still alive?’ But then the pop eyes of the portholes swim round and round, Eliza feels the crayfish coming back and presses her hand to her mouth, while the oyster man says, ‘Ugh!—little girls! little girls!’ and Carly, agonized, wails, ‘Mr Steward—oh, Mr Steward.’page 55
Tasmania drips with tiny waterfalls, like fringes of glass beads. Then it has vanished, and one-of-the-uncles is finding seats on the train. He has red hair and freckles, and kisses Augusta heartily.
‘Well, old girl, it's high time you came to us and got some flesh on those bones.’
Life bustles through high grey arches.
‘Mummy, where are we?’
‘In Melbourne. At the railway station.’
‘Are we going to stay in Melbourne?’
‘Not now, we're going out to the farm with your Uncle Martin.’
‘Where's the farm, Mummy? How far do we go?’ Uncle Martin comes back with slotted pink tickets.
‘Oh, Martin, never you go and have a pack of children. My head spins round with them.’ Uncle Martin says, ‘Tell that to the missus,’ but he eyes the Hannays questioningly. Queer, peaky pestiferous brood.…
Sandra was the one on whom Australia beamed. The fruit was so cheap, barrows and stalls of piled-up, luscious colours, raw orange, slashing purple and gold.
‘Like old times,’ said Augusta, biting into the warm cheek of a pear.
‘Williams pears, tuppence a pound,’ boasted Uncle Martin. Sandra crept on his knee like a white rabbit. She chanted softly, ‘Williamspears, Williams-pears, Williams-pears;’ her gold head lay against Uncle Martin's waistcoat, and she looked so angel-coloured that Carly wondered whether she ought to warn him, ‘Sandra has our father's temper.’ But at the last station, where just after dusk-fall they were met by another uncle, and had to choose whether they would ride in the gig or the buggy, Sandra gave herself away.
‘I don't want to ride in the bug or the giggle.… I don't want to ride in the bug or the giggle.…’ ‘She can keep up that shrieking for hours,’ said Augusta hopelessly. The new uncle said, ‘Hop up, kiddies,’ to Carly and Eliza, and they were tucked under a rug on the high seat beside him.
Countries on the map are misleading. True, Australia was coloured plain red, like New Zealand, but it was so large, and the names of such odd products, pearl-shell, molasses, trepang, were printed in little letters round its coast, that somehow you would have expected it to jump out at you like a Jack-in-the-box, saying, ‘Here I am, I'm Australia.’ Instead, it was plain, indifferent and lonely, with a few startled night-birds flying out of its armpits, and the high gig-wheels turning in deep ruts.
When they got down, the strange uncle said soberly, ‘I'm your page 56 Uncle Will. Do you want to give me a kiss?’ They did, without excitement. Out of a little wooden house, with a lantern swinging in its porch and a great kerosene lamp buzzing inside, came a woman in a print gown.
‘This is your Auntie Rosalind.’
Aunt Rosalind kissed them, and gave them bread-and-milk, but as soon as the buggy-wheels scrunched outside, she said, ‘Come along now, and I'll show you your bed.’
Carly and Eliza had to sleep in the same bed, tops and tails. In the dark was caged a sizzling sound, like a minute drill.
‘Carly, can you hear it?’
‘Yes, it's a mosquito. Go to sleep, Eliza.’
‘I'm awfully hot. They might have let us stay up, our first night. Sandra's still up.’
‘She's probably asleep. Besides, she's the baby.’
‘I hate Australia.’
‘How can you hate it yet?’ began Carly; and then, illogically, ‘So do I.’
Australia kept coming clear in bits and pieces, seemingly unrelated to any whole. The Hannays had many uncles and aunts, but these, instead of being clustered together in a colony, were so widely distributed that it took days to go by train and buggy to their little wood houses. Aunt Rosalind and Uncle Martin had a daughter, who was the Hannays’ cousin Katrine, the first they had ever met. She had freckles, and red hair so like the Macartney children that at first they watched her surreptitiously to see if she scratched her head. Uncle Will was a bachelor. The only other thing that impressed them in the first little house was Carly's terror of the spiders. Cousin Katrine said, ‘Sometimes a tarantula gets into the house. They're as big across as that’ (measuring a foot in the air with her hands), ‘and they're all black and hairy. You look up at one side of the door, and you see a beady eye winking at you; and when you look up at the other side, there's the other beady eye winking, too.’ After that, Carly wouldn't even go to the lavatory alone. She was too scared of beady eyes winking.
Grandmother and Grandfather Devlin lived twenty miles away. When the children were driven over to stay with them, Grandmother Devlin turned out to be little and severe, in a black dress, but Grandfather, so brown and earthy that he looked like a potato, had jujubes in one pocket for good children, and blackballs in another for bad ones.
There was a yellow dog named Sandy, who used to steal loaves and bury them in the sand. After tea, Grandmother said that the page 57 children could go and help separate the milk. They had tried milking, but they couldn't make anything come out of the cow's hard pink teats, and the farm-boys laughed at them. Eliza found herself sitting beside a red-painted machine, turning a handle. Thin streams spouted from its sides, one milk, one cream. This was rather magnificent; in Wellington they never had cream except on Christmas Day and birthdays, when it was whipped into fuzzy masses on the fruit salad. Eliza liked hearing the machine purr, and watching her thin freckled wrist revolve with the handle. By and by Grandfather Devlin came back laughing, and said, ‘Quite good—quite, very good,’ pulling the jujubes out of his pocket. She wanted to try churning the butter, but it wouldn't come lumpy behind the little thick window in the churn, and Grandmother Devlin called, ‘Bring the children in for their supper, Sammy, it's high time they were off to bed.’
When they were getting undressed, Eliza remembered what Augusta had once said about Grandmother Devlin. ‘Her name was Leonora. She had lovely little hands.’ She stopped and stared, standing in her flannel bodice and white frilled knickers. But Grandmother Devlin's hands in the lamplight were spotted the colour of rust, and their inside skin was wrinkled up like washerwoman's fingers. She wasn't a bit like Leonora.…
Next morning they went to let the horses out of the stables for a drink at the dam. They came out with such a tossing of manes and stamping of proud hoofs that to Carly's eye there seemed to be hundreds of them—a heaving convulsion of red-skinned, rolling-eyed, autocratic horses. She hung back behind the stable door. There were so many things in Australia of which everybody said, ‘You mustn't be afraid, Carly. You're the eldest.’ She hated horses, hated the way they showed their high yellow teeth and whickered; but not Old Bill, the blind horse, who stayed in the stable-yard drinking in sunshine through his mud-matted hide, and dribbling green at the mouth. He looked so patient and blind that Carly made herself stroke him. His nostrils felt like grey velvet, and he didn't open his mouth, just moved his head a little in the sun, as if he liked being stroked.
Sandra fell in love with the pigs. She ran about hatless in the sunshine, all her little ringlets wet gold from the comb; mud squelched over the tops of her sandals, but she didn't care. ‘Pigs are horrid,’ said Carly, to whom the sows looked massively naked and unclean. ‘And they smell—ugh.’
‘This one's nice,’ said Sandra, staring at a huge sow on a pillow of mud.page 58
‘She's not. She's dirty, lying in the mud when there's plenty of clean places.’
‘She's sad,’ said Sandra, unmoved. Her pale-blue velvet eyes were fixed in their own vision. The pig was sad and good, Sandra knew it, and nothing could alter her knowledge.
After lunch, they had to stand patiently and be fitted by Aunt Coral, their single aunt, who was making them brown velvet frocks and poke bonnets to match their cloaks. Sandra wept, ‘I don't want a poky bonnet,’ but Aunt Coral only replied, ‘Don't fidget, Miss, and don't be a cry-baby-cry.’ She had a wooden model bust which could be screwed creakily up and down, making it taller or shorter, and her work-basket was lined with rose sateen. Carly longed to beg some of the workbasket scraps to make new clothes for Mr Trinkle and Mrs Trimble, but was too shy to ask. Sandra shuffled from foot to foot, and had to be spoken to sharply; as soon as she was fitted, she raced out of the room, and they could hear her singing under the window, ‘Hate Australia—hate my poky bonnet.’ Aunt Coral said, ‘There's gratitude for you.’
Rock melons were piled up outside, streaky, stripey piles. Cut through their green hides, which felt like glossy water, and you came to rosy flesh studded with dark-crimson pips. The children found tiny unripe grapes under the leaves in the vineyard, and one huge one, quite ripe. Eliza said, ‘The birds ‘ull only get it,’ and popped it into her mouth. Carly and Sandra both said she was greedy, and at table Carly told on her. ‘A nice little unselfish girl might have brought it home to poor Mother,’ Aunt Coral remarked. Light trembled like diamonds in the dusty water carafe set between them, and Eliza felt that she hated Aunt Coral. But afterwards Augusta said she didn't mind at all about the grape, and took Eliza for a long walk over the paddocks. Birds made swift little blunt-edged holes for themselves in the crystal air, and plunged through. A black cat was just a cardboard shape cut out of the afternoon, with dark emptiness pasted behind the place left by his absence. If you stared at him, you could easily see that he wasn't there. Augusta stopped at a fence, and imitated a magpie. Sure enough, a real one answered, gurgling in his throat with a pleased, liquid sound. ‘Oh, it's like a dream hearing the old fellows again.’
In Australia there were emus, kangaroos, dingoes and blackfellows, but quite useless, for they lived in other parts of an enormously large continent. Once the children saw a mottled brown-and-gold thing limp over a fence, and squalled, ‘Snake, snake,’ but it was only a dead one, that one of the ploughmen had hit on the head and skinned. An old page 59 farmhand with skim-milk blue eyes told them of an island where, when the rains swelled the creek, thousands of snakes came swimming along, their backs up in pothooks and hangers.
Australia should really have been Carly's night out. So often she had fitted her great-aunts and grand-uncles into games of Lords and Ladies. Great-Uncle Peter, who was an Admiral and got the sword from the Shah of Persia (but he was dead now); and Great-Aunt Christobel, who was so witty, and Second-Cousin Daisy, who had said she wouldn't be in the least excited if the King asked her to dinner at Buckingham Palace. ‘I should behave myself as I usually do—as a lady.’
Great-Uncle Gervase Devlin was the first indication that Carly's Lords and Ladies were really a terrible have. A bachelor, he lived all alone in a tiny bark-roofed hut among bluegum trees, with great bars of light crashing down on him from their motionless horizontal branches. From the trunks hung strips of bark, reddish and grey; underneath the wood was perfectly smooth, clean and shiny, and the trees looked solemn. Out of Great-Uncle Gervase's chin protruded a whisker so fine and wavy that it looked as if he used it to feel with, like the antennæ of a moth. Otherwise he was very brown, more like a goblin than anyone the children had seen before.
Augusta left the children in his spotless little house while she went to see if she could find a kookaburra among the gum-trees. Although the goblin gave them moist chocolate biscuits from a tin, he seemed quite to have forgotten who they were and why they sat looking at him, and Carly had to explain. He went off into fits of gap-toothed laughter.
‘Dearm, now—that Augusta's children. The freckles she did have on her nose, and the temper of her, to be sure. One of your high-and-mighty, hoity-toity sort.’
‘I think we'd better go and find Mother,’ said Carly, as politely as she could, but with eyes that watered from anger and smoke. Eliza and Sandra obeyed her ‘Come on’ a little reluctantly, and they stepped out into the bluegums. Sun gleamed and splintered on a kerosene tin, at which scraggy fowls were pecking. A hundred yards from the hut, they heard cries and saw the goblin hobbling after them.
‘Dearm, now,’ he wheezed, ‘if I didn't forget to give you the mushy-rooms. You tell your grannie to fry those brown in the fry-pan. But there, she'll never learn, them might as well be twoad-stools.’ The button mushrooms, with white tops and pink frilled pantalettes, were wrapped in a red bandana handkerchief. The children went down the road, until all they could see was a plume of smoke from Great- page 60 Uncle Gervase Devlin's tin chimney. So old… so old… and one whisker like a white filament.
‘I don't believe he's real,’ said Eliza, in a hushed, dreamy voice. She liked pretending that people were not real, or else they were going to change and disappear.
‘He's horrible,’ said Carly, ‘He's a horrible Aussie.’ Sandra piped up, ‘What's an Aussie?’ but Eliza said, ‘You'd better not tell her anything you don't want her to come out with; you know what she is,’ which was truth. When they met Augusta, she added to the disorder of the day. Her hair was bark-rough, and she looked somehow as if she had been splashed all over by the mist of waterfalls. The trap had to ford a shallow stream, and Augusta, the bandana of mushrooms in her lap, said, ‘Slappy reared once, coming across this ford. I had your Aunt Coral on my lap, and over she went. If her baby clothes hadn't floated her up, she might have been drowned.’ Eliza didn't mind much if Aunt Coral had been drowned, because of what she said about the the big grape; but somehow she liked the goblin, and the bright, streaming day.
Cousin Druce and Cousin Mabel, Aunt Patricia's children, were to play with them in the Melbourne Botanical Gardens. Stiff palmfronds rattled on the air, with hard little slapping sounds, and they had grapes in a brown-paper bag.
‘Don't you skin them and spit the pips?’ asked Druce, his brows astonished over his hazel eyes. Mabel added, ‘Our mother never lets us eat grapes with their skins-an’-pips. We might get appendicitis. Besides, a black man might have handled them.’
Carly and Eliza felt ashamed. Like cream, grapes were something you hardly ever had in Wellington. But Sandra said unexpectedly, ‘I had appencitis.’
‘Go on!’ Druce was sceptical. ‘Did you have the doctor?’
‘Yes,’ said Sandra, with her far-gazing blue look, ‘an’ he cut me open and took a little baby out. Let's play doctors.’ Druce sat up hastily ‘That's not appendicitis. Come along, Mabel, we'd better go back to Mother.’
In the Zoo you could go on riding the elephant for ever and ever. He lurched from side to side, vast but gentle, and looking over you could see the huge prints he was making in the yellow gravel. ‘Give him a bun, little lady.’ The elephant curled his trunk back, and for a moment you saw right down inside. It was pink and wrinkled, like the inside of a hose-pipe but a different colour. Make yourself touch it.… The elephant took the bun, and everybody laughed and seemed pleased. Eliza could feel her panama hat slipping from its elastic, and page 61 her cheeks were burned, but she didn't want to get down from the seat that had tassels of red and dusty gold.
Cole's Book Arcade.… Mirrors making you thin as a spoonhandle, or enormously, waddlingly wide. Breath-catching, because they are what you dream sometimes, and then you have to pant hard, and say, ‘It's a dream I will wake up it's a dream I WILL WAKE UP,’ with tremendous, increasing momentum as you swing up from the pit to safety. A curly iron stair twisted, and the notice said, ‘To the Roof-Garden, Adults Only.’
‘I know what adults are,’ said Sandra loudly. ‘They're in the Catechism.’ Everybody stopped, and Aunt Patricia said, ‘What?’ before Carly could pinch Sandra's arm. ‘They can commit adultery,’ said Sandra cheerfully. Aunt Patricia's eyes pecked like two crows, but Sandra stood unmoved, her bee curls clustering under the white velvet cap that matched corduroy jacket and short socks. An old lady said, ‘What a sweetly pretty little girl,’ and Carly thought, ‘I wish you had her, and you were the eldest and everybody blamed you, that's all I wish.’
In the middle of the hot night a light shone, and a man walked into the room where the children were sleeping three in a bed. He was like the other Australian uncles, and yet unlike.
‘You'll wake them up,’ protested Aunt Patricia's voice over his shoulder.
‘Nonsense. Do them good. Let them look at their Uncle Brendon.’
Eliza sat up.
‘Ah, ah,’ he said, ‘there's the one for me.’ He fished her out of bed like a winkle, smoothed down her nightgown, and said, ‘Come on, I'll tell you a story.’
‘Brendon, at this hour.’
‘This is my girl, and she's hot as a coal, and she's got a bung eye from the mosquitoes,’ said Uncle Brendon. Tucked in his coat, Eliza sat in the dining-room, listening to stories that were absurd and not absurd, so real that she knew they had really happened, happened in this short house under the fig-tree, which he said was the biggest fig-tree in the world. Once he poured a purple jewel into a glass for her. It made a hot little patch in her chest, and she apologized. ‘I'm afraid I've got the hiccups.’ ‘Hold your breath and count twenty,’ said Uncle Brendon. When the hiccoughs had gone, he told her she mustn't listen to him, as he was the bad lad of the family.
‘I love you,’ said Eliza sleepily; Uncle Brendon kissed her, and she thought, ‘That's the first time I've been properly kissed in Australia.’
Their Aunt Bernardine was matron of the Agricultural College at page 62 the Yalla, and looked much more like Carly's Lords and Ladies than the others. She wore a rainy tremble of amethysts on her fingers and her long white throat, and had a house with a long screened verandah and garden of blowsy old roses and blundering bees. The college grounds were a huge farm. Sandra, asked what she liked best, said, ‘Oh, the pigs first, and then the students,’ and the students, tall young men with clean-shiny, slippery faces, crowded round and laughed.
There was no need to ask Carly what she liked best, once she had unfastened the heavy gilt clasp on Aunt Bernardine's photograph album. There they were, the people she had imagined; women with narrow oval faces and ringlets to their shoulders, men in uniforms. But she was sad about them, because the interesting ones had happened and been brushed out of the way long ago. ‘And now we're all plain, ordinary, common-sense country folk,’ finished Aunt Bernardine, briskly, ‘except poor old Arthur Storey, who's as mad as a hatter and on his last legs, though musical people thought a lot of him in his day. Keeps violins by the dozen under his bed, in a dirty little flat, and thinks his family's in league to rob him.’
Even the faint, reflected light of the faces in the photograph album was better than no Lords and Ladies at all. Carly was never unhappy at the Yalla, except the night when the bat flew into her hair; then she screamed and screamed, spinning like a top, until Aunt Bernardine called sharply, ‘Keep still at once, or I'll cut off your hair at the roots.’ Then Aunt Bernardine's hard white fingers caught the bat, and chucked it out into darkness, a squashy little brown bogy.
Once they saw a whole hill alive with rabbits, brown-squirming, and Eliza felt a new respect for Australia. Its bareness was different, after all. Strange things were shaken out from under its armpits.… The students fraternized with the children, and mostly Augusta and Aunt Bernardine encouraged this, except for the morning when Sandra asked, ‘Mummy, why do Australians always say, “God stiffen the crows?”’
But Eliza hated the Yalla after Mr Rush and the baby rabbit happened. One of the young students gave it to her, trembling and warm between her hands, its little nose wabbling suspiciously, its eyes large and startled. Mr Rush came up smiling, and said, ‘What's that you've got, Tuppence?’
Eliza showed him the rabbit.
‘That plague.’ He caught the rabbit by its hind feet, and knocked its head against a tree. He did that three or four times, just a streak of brown and a crackle. When he dropped it, its face was all a bloody mash, and one of its eyes had come out. She felt streams of salt in page 63 her throat, and tried to swallow them back, choking. Mr Rush laughed. She threw herself straight at him. He said, ‘Here, here,’ and easily caught her wrists in one hand, but she bit his arm. Aunt Bernardine came out and said Mr Rush was quite right, rabbits were a plague and a destruction to thousands, and she screamed, ‘You're a bloody murderer, Mr Rush,’ until she was shut up in a room.
It seemed strange afterwards that Uncle Rufus, who had paid their fares to Australia, was the most obscure in memory of all. But his farm was far away in mallee country, scrubby and grey. The children knew from the conversation of the grown-ups that Uncle Rufus, who was a bachelor and quite well-off, wanted to adopt them all.
‘That means we'd always live here, with Uncle Rufus, and never go back to Wellington any more,’ Carly explained. Sometimes their mother's eyes were red-rimmed with weeping, and the uncles, towering over her, urged her, ‘Think it over, old girl.’ Not believing in God and the British Empire were very serious offences to them. They looked so different—so square-set on earth, with their red, healthy hair and their big freckles. John, when Eliza tried to call his picture back to mind, looked like a cut-out man of leather, with no thickness through at all.
Quite suddenly the talk of the grown-ups changed, becoming faster, harder, agitated, curiously proud. Life filled up with voices, everybody asking questions, nobody willing to stand still and explain. In a few days, Augusta came running in with a cablegram. She looked on the point of tears, and yet triumphant.
‘We must go home at once, by the next boat. John's enlisted as a private.’
For a moment there was silence among the grown-ups. Then Uncle Martin said awkwardly, ‘Well, old girl…’ His red-brown face was embarrassed and sympathetic.
‘Shows all that clack about the British Empire wasn't anything but a pack of man's talk,’ cut in Aunt Rosalind. Uncle Will nodded.
‘Many a man who's apt to rant a bit till the time comes shows up all right when it comes to deeds. Actions speak louder than words.’
‘Three children to keep on a private's pay,’ said Augusta. Her mind was a battlefield of ideas. She had been unfair to John.… John had enlisted.… John might be killed fighting for his King and country, which seemed paradoxical, after all the row he had made… she must get home at once, and see him off… three children to keep on a private's pay would mean bare existence. Automatically, she repeated the last fragment aloud. Money was not the most important thing in page 64 her life, but since she had had the children, it had become the most pressing and worrying one.
‘Well, old girl, there's still Rufus's offer. He wants to give you and the kiddies a home, and he'd want it more than ever now.’
Augusta, hardly thinking, disposed of Rufus in one sentence.
‘Oh, no,’ she said, ‘He'll be going too.’ It was Uncle Rufus's epitaph. The children never saw him.
Still the long tin-roofed sheds at Wellington; still the screaming gulls, the towering cranes dipping their limbs patiently into the horizon. But John, when he met them at the wharf, hadn't yet got his khaki uniform, and the romance of him fell a little flat. When they got back to Calver Street, tired and dusty, Augusta soon forgot to be excited about the war. John while she was away had done the unspeakable, and got into debt. ‘Look at these bills,’ she cried, between rage and tears, ‘your children can do with bread and dripping, I suppose; but for you, the moment my back's turned, tinned asparagus and strawberry preserves.’
Carly, Eliza and Sandra gazed at their father, with eyes round and bright as new pennies. Even in Australia, where the red machine trickled milk at one end, cream at another, and Uncle Brendon's fig-tree swelled into bursting purple fruits, they had never had tinned asparagus or strawberry preserves.