The Godwits Fly
Chapter Eight — Little Ease
I'm not afraid of those girls. I despise them, they are so ordinary.
Then why are your eyes watering, Cry-baby-cry.…
I didn't think it would be so big, or so lonely: so many girls in navy blue gym. frocks, their thick hair plaited, bobbed, or tied behind with plain black ribbon. Mother won't let me cut mine; it won't plait, and it's so curly that, when it is tied, it stands out in a red bush. School regulation costume: navy serge gym. costume, with plain white blouse, black girdle, black woollen stockings, black heelless sandshoes, Chisholm House tie; black band with college colours about your hat, which is in winter a straw cady, making a thick red furrow on your forehead; in summer—much better—a panama.
Some of the IIIA girls are very tall and sophisticated. They have been a year in the form already. Common sense tells that they are the slow ones, the left-overs, but it's hard not to be impressed by them. They know their way about, Christine calls to Fifi, ‘Here, I've kept our desk,’ and gives a scathing glance at any little cuckoo who flutters near.
If you have the slightest symptoms of a figure above your waist, the gym. frock makes you look like a navy-blue barrel.
‘Can't you climb up the ropes hand over hand? Can't you do somersaults from the horizontal bar? At our school, we always had gym. Watch Simone Purcell, she's good.’
‘That's not bad, Eliza. Oh, did you hurt yourself? Didn't she come down hard on her head?’
‘That's old Griffin. You don't have to take much notice of her. Betty Peters is her favourite. I'd rather die than be a favourite, wouldn't you? Miss Griffin's got a young man. He can't be very particular, she must be old as the hills. She's always thinking of him, you watch the way she sits with her mouth pursed up. She writes letters to him behind her exercise book, when she's supposed to be correcting our work. One day Fifi Longford picked up a sheet of letter she had page 93 written, and it began “Sam, darling.” Sam, darling! Fifi handed it back before all the girls. She was nearly bursting. I'll bet Miss Griffin must be forty. I'd rather die, wouldn't you?’
Dismembered pieces of buttercup: light, cold voice. Girls, this is the calyx… this is the corona… here are the stamens.… If you hold a buttercup under your chin and it makes a shine like painted metal, you steal butter; but they don't say that. All the King's horses and all the King's men will never put dismembered buttercup together again.
Two rolls of pink crinkly paper have vanished from the classroom. Miss Adderley wanted them to make paper roses for the school bazaar. When she can't find them anywhere, she stalks out, two bright spots of displeasure on her cheekbones, to report the loss to Miss Verriam, the head mistress. The girls chatter volubly. Of course, old Mrs Macarthy, the caretaker's wife, must have moved them by accident.
A voice, flickering cold as a sword, whips out of its scabbard.
‘Why don't you ask Eliza Hannay where they are? She's sitting right next to the windowledge where Miss Adderley left them.’
Of all the aviary voices, not one is chattering. Why don't you ask Eliza Hannay? There is a spot of ink right in front of her blouse, and her hair sticks out behind. The bush smells purple and golden-brown. They have put high wire-netting over these classroom windows, so that you can't look out. I was dux of my school, but the girls from Oddipore are all scattered, like the frail little pink and indigo blobs of jelly washed up at Island Bay after a big storm. What on earth would I do with two rolls of pink crinkly paper? At St Monica's church socials they always had it, festooned in streamers across the roof, pink lattice work and dusty roses over the stalls. Two iced buns and a glas of weak pink lemonade. Carly went as Cinderella, in a pink sateen frock and a white apron; her little Cinderella slipper was tied to her waistband, and her long hair touched her waist. Sandra was a forget-me-not.… Mother nearly worked her eyes out scalloping the blue satin petals, and I was Union Jack, though I didn't much want to be. I recited, and that girl with the red hair danced. She looked like wavering smoke. Anyhow, Calver Street was next door to a slum. I hate this clean place, the too many voices, too many bodies: too large. But I'm not going to cry.
‘You needn't have made Eliza cry, Simone Purcell. You might just as easily have taken the crinkly paper yourself.’
‘She's a baby. Fancy snivelling over a joke.’
‘Well, you've no right to say she's a thief. If that's your idea of a joke, you might as well keep quiet.’
‘Let her alone. Simone's only showing off.’page 94
A queer face, Simone's. The forehead is bumpy, like a young boy's and beneath very black brows stare out pale-green eyes, leopard eyes. They have a slightly vacant, wandering look, and are not quite straight. She has just missed a squint. Her hair is fine, perfectly straight, neither gold nor Saxon tow-colour, but fine gilt. Her lower lip thrusts out, sullen, and her hands are ugly, the blunt, ineffectual hands of somebody who should have been an artist, and can't. Always those blunt fingers are scribbling things on paper, nymphs almost lovely, but preposterously lean and long, profiles of hideous Austrian-looking wenches, all nether lip and top eyelash. And they aren't any good. The neat little unimaginative drawings of Fifi Longford come off, Simone's don't. Her body, in its shabby clothes, is lithe and slender.
Simone Purcell, I am going to make you sit up and take notice. Simone, why did you say I took the pink crinkly paper, when you knew I didn't, and you could just as easily have picked on anyone else? Because you knew I'd cry? But I'm not soft all the way through.… Or because the others hadn't interested you?
I can hit back. I can say clever things quickly, without stopping to think. At the end of a month, the girls laugh, and say, ‘Eliza Hannay is rotten at games, but she is witty.’ ‘Look at the doorstep sandwiches her mother cuts her for lunch,’ pipes little brown Alice Fagan. And when I am beaten, in a class debate, Fifi Longford, one of the big, handsome left-overs served up cold from last year's IIIA, says under her breath, ‘Serve you right, Miss Eliza Hannay.’ They're hostile, but they had three pretty good speakers against me, and mine were duds… poor little Kattie Bryce will giggle. Simone and I together could wipe the floor with them.
I hate Simone Purcell; and I can make her look round whenever I like. You don't say in your head, ‘Simone, look at me—Simone, look at me’; that's a dud way. You just look at the back of her head, and make all the thoughts go bobbing out of your mind, like corks on a slack tide. The most absurd words and ideas go bobbing past. Then she looks.… When Miss Adderley or Miss Codrington says something funny without meaning to, she looks of her own accord, and poor old Coddie throats, ‘Girls, I will not have undercurrents of understanding in my classes.’ Simone's laughter comes up in little bubbles behind the pale-green iris. We know we'll never forget the phrase, ‘undercurrents of understanding.’
But we are enemies. Our looks cross like daggers. I am only waiting my chance. Only her eyes are like grass with the sun on it.…
From the big hall where prayers are said every morning, and lessons read out of the Old Testament, rusty as if with dried blood, a page 95 wooden staircase mounts up beneath a wall hung with deep-coloured prints. Every stair is slightly crooked and hollowed, where the feet of girls and girls and girls, some of them wearing the great mushroom hats and muslin blouses of the ’nineties, ran up and down. They used to play croquet and archery, and this school was then an establishment for young ladies, with no scholarship or Government subsidy brats. Somehow I love those wooden hollows, inside me; but I will not tell. There is a dusty museum upstairs, and the long, stained rooms are labelled ‘Chemical Laboratory’, ‘Botany’, ‘Home Science’. But we never do anything by wholes, it is all dismembered, like the buttercup, and nobody has the energy to stick it together again. It comes as a little clean thrill, a shock of surprise, when your mind makes even the most trifling discovery for itself, puts two silly little bits of picture-puzzle together. I was thrilled when I discovered that matter has the property of contraction and expansion—and yet, look how easy. We were young and keen when we came here, we had passed our examinations well. Now they get out their textbooks, and slap bits and pieces into us. Things equal to the same thing are equal to one another. Common are to either sex, artifex and opifex. Nobody ever says, ‘You are learning this because,’ and gives a reason. It's all cold, like jellied sauce set around a dismal pudding. Only sometimes things explain themselves—poetry, English, French. And then they dare, they dare, to laugh at William Morris, and Miss Hebron simpers too.
Not worth learning. I translated for myself—
‘Les sanglots longs
In lengthened sobbing,
Wound my heart with restless
Dullness of their throbbing,’
but nothing in English could be as lovely as the sound of ‘les sanglots longs.’
At the bottom of the garden are two great oak trees, their leaves a green murmuring summer. You can eat your lunch alone or in groups, though if you sit alone you look left out. The girls get up lazily and play croquet, or bump the seesaw against the ground, but the real sports play basketball and cricket. Once Cassie James sliced a cricket ball right over the high tin wall and into the street. She is ugly, stupid, and so round-shouldered that she is almost hunchbacked, but the col- page 96 lege is proud of her, as of some terrible hunting trophy, a pair of elk's horns brought home from the mountains.
Eliza on the basketball court faces the enemy. Run—dodge—splodge. ‘Pass, can't you, pass.’ As the hard leather smacks her palms, a sudden acute pain runs up the little finger Sandra once broke. When the whistle blows, her finger is beautifully swollen, and the ache red-hot.
‘Back to your places, girl. Pass, there, pass.’
At half-time Eliza goes up to the nut-cheeked young sports mistress, whose bosom and sturdy haunches look absurd in just the same navyblue gym. frock as that worn by the girls.
‘Please, Miss Jamieson, I'm afraid I've broken my finger.’
Miss Jamieson starts to say, ‘Nonsense.’ Then she changes her tune.
‘Cold water, bandages and a sling. Run inside, and Miss Hebron will fix it up for you. You've sprained it, anyhow.’
The finger is not broken, but dislocated; and, blessed sequel, it pops out again at the first impact of the leather. ‘You'll be no good for basketball,’ says Miss Jamieson, sourly. ‘How are you going to fill in your spare time?’
‘I'm on the Library Committee, Miss Jamieson’—but at sight of the young mistress's face, Eliza hastily added, ‘and I'll learn to swim, and walk a lot, and play croquet, and perhaps next term my finger will be all right.’
And I love climbing the hills, especially when they're grey, and the two old oaks down at the bottom of the garden, and writing poetry, and the hollows in the stairs, and the colours in the Wars of the Roses prints—you know, the ones in the outside hall. And I like English sometimes, and French, but I've read to the end of the book while they're still on Chapter Two, and it's so dull sitting about. And I hate mathematics—to listen gives me a sick feeling in my spine, like cramp; and I read Tacitus from a crib, one of my father's books, because it's so interesting, and better to get the whole sense than blundering on from phrase to phrase, like caterpillars in a nightmare. And Miss Farquhar was not right in her translation about getting vermin and diseases from swine. But I love ‘And the pearls there are darker than the pearls of other seas,’ that's Tacitus, and ‘Nox atra, qui abstulit colorem res,’ that's in Virgil. Can't you see it? ‘Black night, that steals away the hues of earth.’ And you've got a skeleton monkey upstairs in the little museum. I like that too, I don't know why, except that skeletons look so clean and wise. I love Rostand's Chanticleer in the library, and so does Simone Purcell, the girl with the green eyes, whom I hate. You think she's a good sport because sometimes she can throw page 97 a goal at basketball, but you wait, Miss Jamieson—she's as bad as me, if not worse. And, Miss Jamieson, I hate the wire-netting over the windows, and the way the girls laugh about poetry, and the size of them massed together, because the navy-blue costume makes us look as if we were all bits of the same substance, overflowed into different vats. And I hate Miss Verriam, because she's a snob. But she's like my Aunt Bernardine. It's not our fault she had to take State School girls instead of remaining an academy for mushroom hats with respectable pinheads under them. Oh, and I do conversational French because Madame Renault is like a damson—there's a little dark bloom on her skin, and her lips are velvety. And I don't carry Miss Cairn's books to be a favourite, but because I am rather sorry for her. She means well and looks silly, doesn't she?
‘Try bandaging with iodine,’ advised Miss Jamieson. She was rather a nice girl, but too hearty, and her eyes popped.
A little while after, Eliza had her chance with her darling enemy, Simone. Simone slipped and fell on the basketball court, tearing one knee right out of her stocking. Her cheeks turned wild rose, her green eyes looked bewildered, then filled. Eliza suspected that the Purcells, like the Hannays, hadn't much money. Simone's clothes were almost worse than hers. Afterwards in the classroom, Miss Hebron asked Simone a question which anyone could have answered. She stood up; the leopard eyes looked about her in a hunted way, then she stammered, burst into tears.
‘Sit down, Simone. Don't be such a child.’
‘Coals of fire,’ thought Eliza. She stood up.
‘Please, Miss Hebron, Simone isn't a child.’
‘Eliza Hannay, sit down at once.’
‘Please, she isn't. Simone fell and hurt herself. She hit her head on the asphalt, I saw her. She has the most terrible headache, and she didn't want to tell anyone.’
‘Oh.’ A long pause. ‘Well, in that case you'd better take Simone's terrible headache home, Eliza, since you're so concerned.’ Miss Hebron was being sarcastic, but it didn't matter.
‘Thank you, Miss Hebron.’
Outside, Simone, still crying, said, ‘Liar. Dirty little liar.’
‘If you howl any more, people in the street will think you've just come back from a funeral, or been expelled,’ Eliza advised dispassionately. The hills were quite near, delicate hard grey. At one place a quarry made a high scar, hacked out of the grass. Eliza thought, ‘Wherever she goes, I'm going too.’ Water splashed down the misty threads. Simone climbed and climbed, as if she could never get tired. page 98 There was a glint of berry-red in the grass, and Eliza picked up a necklace of red beads strung on tarnished silver. She felt disappointed that somebody else had been there before, but the beads were pretty. The rocks were now like living things, animals with flat, out-thrust faces. They rattled and slithered underfoot, and suddenly Eliza's stomach felt sick. She heard her voice, too high, saying what her mind ordered it not to say.
‘I can't climb up there. I'm not going any farther.’
Simone climbed on. Eliza scrambled ineffectually at a rock-face, got on a ledge six feet up, looked, and was not quite sure if she could get up or down.
‘That's right, cry. You hate me, don't you?’
‘I don't hate you, I despise you.’ But to despise anyone, clinging straddled against a rock-face like a baboon, only a ridiculous little drop of six feet below, was just talk. And beyond that, she didn't hate Simone any longer, didn't despise her. The shadows of clouds moved mighty over the rocks and grass, and they weren't tainted by Simone's presence there. Trees had been planted farther along, little pines thrusting their nuggety brown-flowered heads into the arc of the air. They lay beneath them and laughed, sliding the pine-needles between their fingers. Eliza gave Simone the red beads on the tarnished necklace.
Next day in class Simone told it all, imitating Eliza on the rock-face. ‘I d-don't h-hate you, I d-despise you.’ One of the big girls said crushingly, ‘Don't tell tales out of school.’ Eliza didn't greatly care: Simone was hers. In a strange way, it was pleasant to look up in dream, look up the ridiculous inaccessible rock-face and see her friend's face above.
‘Mother. I'm in VA this year.’
‘Of course you are.’
Eliza's name wasn't in the senior scholarship list, but there was an Elsie Hannay. ‘It's a misprint. Of course you won your scholarship,’ said Augusta firmly, and the gods obeyed her. Of course it was Eliza.…
‘Mother. I'm in VA this year.’
‘Of course you are.’
Carly, who was a year ahead in time, was among the B girls. But she didn't mind. She said, ‘I know I'm not clever,’ and didn't want to be. Carly hadn't to sit for matriculation, which would have frightened her out of her life. The ugly red mark scored by the school hat across her forehead made her look like a worried marmoset. She was dying to throw it away, to put on soft, floppy hats and dresses right down to the ground, dresses of flowered voile and organdie. While you were in page 99 school uniform you must never be seen talking to a boy, not even your own brother, but Trevor Sinjohn still took Carly walking over the hills every week-end, and she went up to the Sinjohn's house on Sundays to help with the cooking. Mrs Sinjohn, a tiny woman with swollen varicose veins, said Carly was a dear, good girl, a true daughter.
When Eliza was nearly fifteen, she thought she was in love with Trevor Sinjohn too, and wrote verses about him:
I bring thee passion-flowers of my dreams—
Trevor never knew. The grey hills, the oldness and dirtiness of the cemetery, leaned through the windows of her little room, leaned on her heavily. There was a clay road slanting up between far rows of pines, and the dying sun dwelt on it. She thought if she could one day walk up it alone she would be happy. At other times she cried: ‘I'll run away. I'll run away and live in the bush.’
Augusta provoked her, and Eliza told her, ‘I do love Trevor Sinjohn, so there.’ ‘You must be mad. You ought to be ashamed of yourself,’ retorted Augusta. She was growing heavily middle-aged, her face in the light of the little green room was hard and uncompromising. She distrusted Eliza, and for a moment thought, ‘Better she had never been born.’ To take Carly's boy away, even to look sideways at him, would have been the unforgivable sin. But she need not have worried. After Eliza had thought of Trevor's cat eyes for a month, and written him several ardent poems, she forgot him.
It was Simone who understood, in her off-hand way—sometimes striking out, sometimes as good a friend as the black pine-tops. Augusta called Simone ‘that little harlot,’ because she put on lipstick; and because Augusta had intercepted a letter in which Simone said that they would have lovers when they were grown up, but not too many babies.
‘Girls, atten-shun, Right wheel. Forward march. Touch your toes. Swing the trunk from the hips. Keep your abdomens in and your chests out. Stand at ease. Atten-shun.’
Part of the college grounds lay unfrequented, an elderly cottage and garden purchased but never occupied. Simone and Eliza could talk there, or Eliza could write.
‘Smoke, Eliza Jane Maria?’
‘No, thank you.’
Simone lit her cigarette. The advertisements called it Con Amore— page 100 ‘scented with amber, tipped with rose-leaves.’ That was why she smoked it.
‘Let's see what you're writing, Liz.’
‘It's no good, and a crib from Masefield's “West Wind".’
‘It would be. Everybody cribs.’
She read it out, her lazy voice giving the crib something of grace.
‘It's a far way to England
O'er the dolphin-backs of foam,
So far the wandering swallow
Half dreads that journey home;
Yet a patient star, that loveth
England of all lands best,
Shines on those weary pinions
And guides them to their rest.
‘There are greener fields in England
Than the meadows of the sea,
And the laughing daisies whiter
In English pasture be
Than starlight, spume or spindrift
In all those tossing miles—
And sorceress-white, the hawthorn
Glimmers by English stiles.
‘There are white cliffs of England
Where the sounding breakers speak,
And he who never knew them
Has yet his home to seek;
O Roman, Dane and Norman
Would mock this vanquished land,
Till her laughing beauty led them
Like children, by the hand.
‘There are green lawns in England,
Broidered by flowers as gay
As ancient missals painted
By white hands fled away;
And a King's cloak of twilight
And a minstrel's cloak of rain
Shall robe your dreams in silver,
Shall veil the scars of pain.’2
‘Why pain, Eliza? Why England?’ Light fell through the closepetalled snowball flowers, making little golden points in her eyes, page 101 that were green as the elfin things Eliza loved best. She said, ‘You're rather a silly baby, Eliza Hannay. Don't you like it here?’
‘I love it. But don't you think we live half our lives in England, anyhow? I was thinking—there can't have been anything quite like this since the Roman colonists settled in Britain: not the hanging on with one hand, and the other hand full of seas. Wouldn't we be different there, more ourselves? Come too, Simone.’
‘Not to England.’
‘We belong there, don't we? I suppose it's the bluebells. None of us has ever been, for three generations, except my father at the war, and that didn't count; he's never happy anywhere except in books. But mother has her white house like a Greek cross, just outside the New Forest; and I like the godwits.’
‘The godwits don't go anywhere near England. They fly to Siberia.’
‘Not in my story.’
‘I don't believe in romantic bluebells.’ She rolled over, lithe as a leopardess. ‘Tell you what: I'm partly Hun myself.’
Mr Vaughan and Belgian sausage. The idea of your children calling Carly the Kaiser, Mrs Vaughan, the very idea. The cap fits nearer home.…
‘Did you hate the war, Simone?’
‘Not especially. I'm going to marry a pacifist. Not for sentimental reasons, but because I don't see the point of being smashed up. I like my happiness smooth, smooth as ice-cream. My father's English, his mother is French. It's mother who has the Teuton blood, and she's a seraph.’
‘Does it make any difference?’
‘It gives me stolidity. Mixtures are either unemotional or explosive, and I'm all against emotion. I won't get sloppy. So I won't pick bluebells with you, Eliza. If you like, we'll go to Paris.’
‘What's the good of Paris?’
‘Bright lights and beautiful young men. I want to dance.’
Eliza said, ‘I'd like to dance,’ and knew as she said it that she never would; not as the reed dances, or the smoke.
‘Your soul would like to dance, Eliza Hannay. But your boots are too heavy.’
Never argue with her when she's brutal. Shopping in Wellington, though, trailing up dingy streets, past the plots of grass where pigeons preen emerald breast-feathers. Dragging, a dead weight, behind the others. ‘Eliza, you can't be tired already.’ And Eliza always was. I want so much to be alive, alive as a poised wave, she thought, and it drains out of me. When you say, ‘I'm tired,’ people don't understand, page 102 and if you say you're sick, it's lead-swinging. But to be alive, to drink in airs and colours through your very skin.…
‘I'll go with you to England, Eliza Jane. If you like we'll buy a caravan, then you won't be tired.’ Simone, always Simone understood. When she was gone, Eliza tore another sheet out of her exercise book, and tried to write her down: not Simone in the navy-blue gym. costume, Simone in her proper colour, green like chalcedony.
Back sped her yellow hair against the dusk,
Back fled her dark-green hood:
Oh, dark as holly, round about the face
Where ice too soon was brittle; wise too soon
November eyes, beneath an April moon.
She crumpled the paper, with a sigh of impatience. November… snow… ice… holly… robins in the snow… springtime, the only pretty ring-time.… None of it happened, had ever happened to your sight, hearing or taste, and yet everything else was unreal, because you had been weaned on it. The Antipodeans did truly walk on their damfool heads.
Simone's people (a retired cavalry officer, floridly handsome, bad-tempered, mentally always in the act either of toasting the ladies, God bless them, or damning the women, God blast them; a thin, terribly tired, humorous mother in unvarying shabby black) moved from their town house out to Black Valley, twenty miles away and real country. The Hutt slid against it. Wild gorse flared on its hills, turnips wrangled with the knotty furrows, a brown stream ran through the farmyard, full of stumps and prickles. Eliza thought the Purcells’ new house wonderful. Hadn't it got a pink slate roof, instead of red tin?
‘Now you'll be able to ride,’ said Simone, her eyes brilliant. Later she called, ‘Fool—you'll come off,’ as the thick-bellied roan pounded his heels into muck. The agony of sitting a trotting horse bore a rather interesting likeness to the agony of mathematics. Both started a sick little pain in the spine, spread till every cranny of one's being was filled. Eliza could bear the roan better if he galloped, even though she broke her neck for it. ‘You look like a sack of beans,’ shouted Simone, thrusting alongside on grey Jeremy. She was beautiful herself—her cheeks whipped, slender shabby body erect. Fine, fine… like a snake or a leopardess, admirable beasts. Augusta said, ‘She tries to look like a Badwoman. But of course, she squints.’ Badwoman was said all of a piece, with the accent on the first syllable.
‘You're doing fine, kiddie,’ said George Brennard, the Purcells’ next-door neighbour, who had come over to help them settle in, and was a page 103 little in love with Simone. George had limpid brown eyes and a shock of silvery hair, and was always being wounded at the pertinacity with which female things allowed themselves to be hurt, like moths sizzling into candle-flames. A sparrow cheeping in distracted circles around her tumbled nest was an event for him, a crisis of pain in his mind. He made the worst farmer in the world. If he had had his way, nobody would have suffered; there was hardly any woman whom he did not love and admire. He had no discrimination, mental or physical. Eliza's brown mane, her breasts under the ugly navy serge, were as beautiful to him as Simone's whipcord; neither was any better, or sadder, than a brood of new chicks, yellow life-dust suddenly formed and scuttling round the lamp of the incubator. George kept an opium pipe on his mantelshelf. It was only a curio, but sometimes he thought he would go to one of the Chinese in Haining Street… and then dream, and dream, and forget the world.
‘Anyhow,’ said Eliza, ‘I didn't come off.’ It was true, but only just. Grace, poise, were the things the wet boughs had, and the hills, for all their titanic heaviness, and Simone riding between them, her bright cheeks dangerous. Either you are born with these things, or born heavy-handed, empty-handed. Then (for you may not surrender) you must learn to act.
They were alone on the uplands of the Black Valley, Simone and Eliza and a black spaniel named Fool. Although they were fond of George, they were glad he had gone, for they wanted to talk, and a male thing impeded them. Soggy paddock broke into quivering emerald of reed-covered quicksands. Then came a brief, strange paradise of native trees, rimu and wild honeysuckle, bark ragged-red. The leaves of native birch made a bronze mist in the air. One tree looped a huge arm over the path. Catching it, you could swing out and out, body a pendulum.
‘Look at me, Simone. Not so bad?’
‘Are you afraid of wild bulls, Eliza?’
‘Garston's bull is loose in this bush. George Brennard says Garston ought to be gaoled for letting it go wild. It's killed three people already.’
‘Yes, I'm afraid, as much as ever you like. I can't run as hard as you, and what's more, you know it,’ said Eliza's coiled-up demon. But her voice stayed self-possessed.
‘I shall lie down quietly and say I'm dead. If it's a noble animal, it will leave me alone. Only the canaille touch corpses.’
Simone laughed, silly as the girls at College, who think ‘Eliza Han- page 104 nay is witty.’ Easy to pull the wool over almost anyone's eyes.… Moss cushions squelched with bright dew under their feet, sometimes spurting up in a bright, tall jet. Out of the manuka bushes, whose grey presence now took command of the whole world, shutting out sky and valley and the ridge behind, were shaken great globules of rain, and millions of grey moths, as fine as silver powder. They fell into the girls’ hair and beat on their eyes, they were part of their skin, part of the thought one thinks and leaves behind, only to find it waiting at the very end of the trail. The black dog wriggled and panted as big drops hit his curly pelt. There were myrtle berries, red as the bead necklace Eliza had given Simone, and a green and grey life of small spiders and insects went on behind the hanging strips of bark, between the slender, ragged trunks.
Presently Simone said, ‘Aren't you tired?’
‘No. Are you?’
‘All right. There are wild pigs over these hills. Ever seen one?’
‘Only at the Zoo. A dirty old devil, with yellow dribble on his tusks.’
‘They're much wilder here.’ Simone's hat was cocked over one eye, her hair fell in wet gilt strands. The bright golden moss had gone, leaving bald earth. Leaves, leaves—a million to every bush, pointed and grey, little flint arrows. The dusty bodies of moths were an excrement from the manuka, one grew tired of brushing them away.
Tired of everything but going on, wet through, enclosed in the grey shell of the moment; because, no matter how often one discovers that this is the Glory Hole, always one feels, ‘Perhaps this time it won't be.’
They weren't properly lost, though the rain had come on and drawn darkness down in its fine bow-strings. Simone knew the way down, but wasn't quite sure whether in darkness they would strike the quicksands, and be drowned.
‘Father will roar,’ she said unemotionally. ‘He bullies mother. Fool, my lad, go and tell mother we're all right.’ The spaniel wriggled his wet little body at her shoes, abject. He wanted to be picked up and carried. He wanted the sensations of a blazing log fire, steaming him, then baking his coat into a hard curly mat, but he couldn't remember where these things had been, or what made their glow. The girls kept moving, very cold, a little frightened, a little silly. Tree-stumps came jaggedly out of the dark and bruised them. Once they heard a crashing in the undergrowth. ‘Wild pig,’ said Simone.
Red lanterns, ladybirds, skirted the edge of the quicksands. ‘Oh God,’ said Simone, ‘it's a search party. Can't you die, Eliza? Father might forgive a corpse.’page 105
Eliza tripped over a stump. She wasn't hurt, but when Simone cried, ‘Did you fall? Are you all right?’ she didn't answer. Cold wet, cold wet… She shut her eyes, and the spaniel, moaning, came and lay beside her, its fat little body palpitating. Simone found her, and said in a slightly awe-struck voice, ‘Have you fainted, Eliza?’ Eliza let her head fall back. She remembered reading in a book how a woman pretending to be asleep was found out because she looked too ornamental, and decided on an open mouth. The search party crawled up the hill.
‘Eliza's hurt. I think she's unconscious.’
Mr Purcell said, ‘Where's the damn’ brandy?’ and somebody answered that Harris had got it. Harris was down at the slip-fence. George Brennard and Mr Purcell formed an arm-chair and carried Eliza, who let herself lie limp; once they slipped and dropped her into a pit at least eight feet deep, and Mr Purcell sprawled on top of her, exclaiming, ‘Christ, God, Jesus. Mind the hole, Brennard. Bring that bloody lantern.’ ‘Now I really am hurt,’ she thought, but said nothing. On the edge of the manuka they struck Harris and the brandy—horrid, sputter-making stuff, pouring fire down the chest. She opened her eyes and saw Simone, wet-haired as Fool, and Mr Brennard in the act of being fond of her. ‘A little Briton,’ he said, patting Simone's shoulder, ‘game as a regular little Briton.’
Mr Purcell said curtly, ‘Where's this girl's frock?’ Simone said, ‘Inside her bloomers,’ and hauled it out. They had both tucked in their skirts when the manuka first brushed them with its heavy wet, but of course Simone wouldn't be caught. George Brennard turned his face away, distressed. Seeing a girl in her bloomers was nearly as bad for him as seeing her assaulted. He felt grieved for Eliza.
Mrs Purcell, standing at the door, said, ‘Get them both into the bathroom,’ and her troops, steaming and sweating, disappeared with the brandy-bottle. Her worn, pale face stayed expressionless as she peeled off their wet rags, but somehow Eliza felt it was time to recover consciousness. ‘Get into the bath,’ said Mrs Purcell. Then she shut the door and left them. The girls slid down into the great bath of smoking champagne-coloured water. It was silk, golden silk. Eliza let her hair slip under, and it came up streaming dark.…
‘Was it an adventure, Simone?’
‘Don't talk rubbish. You made it up.’
‘It happened, anyhow. And you were scared.’
‘Anyone ’ud be scared, with you pretending you were dead.’
‘If I hadn't pretended, your father would have gone off pop, you said so yourself.’page 106
‘You needn't pretend it was that, little heroine.… Can't you hear George Brennard saying to his friends, ‘And that poor little Miss Hannay was—er—er—rather lightly clad?”’
‘Anyhow, George called you a little Briton. I may be Anglophile, but I don't believe I'd care to be called a little Briton. Would you like to see the bruises your father made when he trod on me? I believe it was an adventure.’
‘Oh, shut up.’ Mrs Purcell trudged silently back with wath warm towels. Then they lay in a high-ceilinged room, where on the wall hung a picture of red Saint Bernard dogs snuffling at footprints in the snow. So different from Fool. The circle of pines outside moaned like the rising sea. Millions of moths, millions of little arrowed leaves, sharpened behind shut eyes to hunt somebody down on the far side of the black ranges. If we had stayed there and been lost, what could have happened? Nothing, except to be dead and clean, among the great sluggard roots of the trees. One could do worse.… Simone's shoulder was like ivory under her shabby silk nightgown. The Purcells had a little more money than the Hannays, but they had put it all into Black Valley land and a car for Mr Purcell.
In the morning, life was too busy for anyone to bother them. Mrs Purcell cooked porridge and flat, anæmic girdle scones, and Mr Purcell said loudly over his newspaper that Eliza was a fine woman—a fine woman.
‘He likes ’em with bloomers and busts,’ murmured Simone. They wandered about, watching day-old chicks fuzzle out of the incubator. Eliza loved the sweet muck smell of the place, the sharp-edged flaring Black Valley hills. Mr Purcell drove them down to the station for Eliza's train, and they sang, ‘Come back to Erin, mavourneen, mavourneen.’
At Laloma, all the old coinage was wearing thin. The talking-games had stopped long ago, when Eliza got her green room and was labelled ‘studious’. Instead of being bunched together, as at Calver Street, the children seemed now to be strung out, with leagues of difference between them. Augusta still quarrelled endlessly with John. Once, when he had had a Christian Science fit, she almost decided to encourage him; but she found out that a woman lent him the Christian Science books, and couldn't resist chipping him about ‘that fat Mrs Carradick.’ Then Mrs Carradick wanted John to please Mary Baker Eddy's ghost by giving up tobacco, and gratefully he went back to being an atheist.
Carly was equal parts of ‘I'm not clever,’ Trevor Sinjohn, and love for Augusta. She still looked like a little girl. Sandra was much the page 107 prettiest, with pale, clustering bee-curls and blue eyes. Next year she was going to Chisholm, but she wasn't a scholarship certainty, like Eliza. Eliza thought Sandra was nearly imaginative, but not quite; and because of the not quite, she was becoming hard, practical, a stickler for everyday things. They all hated Simone Purcell, even John, who suspected that the pale-green eyes laughed at him. When they said she was a Badwoman, Eliza rushed to the defence; she didn't really care whether Simone was bad or good, but she knew that the Hannays were wrong. Simone's devil was lost, like the artistry of her blunted fingers. She should have been bad, perhaps, bad and queenly. She was only a little laugh, hopeless, and lost in the darkness. Little grey goddess.
Kitch still loved poems about the brown men with bandy legs who live in coprosma roots. Sometimes they took him mushrooming, finding white buttons and large tasty brown ones, propagated under gorse-bushes in ancient cow-droppings. Kitch trotted along, like a sack of potatoes unreasonably given action and a mind of its own. Now and again he plumped down, Buddha-like, and they knew he either wanted to be carried the rest of the way, or else was putting things into his mouth. When Sandra scolded, he would smile beautifully, opening his mouth just enough to whisper, ‘Mush'oom.’
‘It's a toadstool. It's a Devil's Stink Egg. You'll turn black in the face and die.’ Unmoved, Kitch smiled on, till Sandra and Eliza turned him upside down and shook his prey out of his mouth.
Those long hills were very ridgy. From their summer grass, larks and sparrows blew out, light as chaff. Blue-gums, slim ships’ mast trees with sickle leaves, were planted on the harbour side, far down lay white roads and the Gardens, old three-decker houses with red tin roofs. Then, misted in vague creeping blues that sometimes went to jewel colours, the city spread out, searching after its seas. It found them in most different places—sometimes intercepted by suburbs, sometimes in scalloped bays, or running lean and very much alive, a questing beast, up channels between hill and hill. Always there was that blue shout of surprise. Then the waves tossed white aigrets into the air and started laughing, like big kids of chieftains that would eat you if you couldn't first make them grin. But once they began to be merry, they kept on, having nothing else on their mind but killing a ship now and then; or rippling in long, pliant dazzle-ropes, between the meshes of silently swooping nets.
The land was living, like the sea. A land's always alive while it can grow hair, and this place sent up scrub and trees, gorse and bracken, long grasses that wear slippery in summer when feet run over them. page 108 Hedgehogs slid out, like hair too, beards off the chins of spiky old customers, philosophy out walking, ready for a dig at anyone. Beyond Thorndon, black and slatternly, the city was guarded by the full monster strength of a range lying with its head on its blunt paws. It was quick soil, ready. The whole earth was filled with the potency of moving again if it liked, of feeling all contacts strongly through its veins and marrow. The children who ran across it were moving inside its movement, little kites on a string controlled by its big will.
Simone left Little Ease a year earlier than Eliza, when they were both in VA; and though Eliza afterwards hauled herself through matriculation, and realized that her mathematics were impossible, the faint box walks of her sciences falling into disrepair, the whole was flat and stagnant. ‘I can work,’ she discovered, ‘if there's somebody I love to work for, or looking on. But not unless.’ From room to room they slid. The could have the leg of frog for science, the half of a nasal accent for French, Bowdlerism for literature. But they never glimpsed the whole of anything. Afterwards, walking rapidly to assignations with Simone in Highland Park, Eliza felt her dead mind come alive, receiving whole the fierce little pink trumpet of a flower, every face of the dozen listless deadbeats slumped together on a seat outside Parliament Buildings. Of those she could think, ‘I will remember them for ever.’
To counteract Simone, she tried bringing other girls to Laloma. Little Kattie Bryce adored her, in a pink and stolid way, but when she came she always ate herself sick, and afterwards, out on the hills, came a dreadful halt, while Kattie, her eyes dark with misery and shame, held her stomach and murmured, ‘I do feel so bad.’ Then she lay where she had fallen, and gave up everything except the ghost.
In their final year, the girls had lessons in ballroom dancing, a tiny grey china cat of a mistress supervising the efforts of a veritable dancing master. One-two-three-turn. One-two-three-glide. One-two-three-hop. One Saturday evening, each fortnight, the classes were mixed. Boys from the Menton Boys’ School attended, perfectly at home. But the tall blades of the Sixth never asked for dances unless you belonged to a select little coterie: Eulalie, Marian, Beth, Joan Roberts, Ursula…
Little Kattie Bryce, nervously smoothing out the folds of her navyblue foulard, which bears a white pattern like enraged comets and bicycle-tyres: ‘Eliza, do I look all right? My nose isn't shiny?’ But nobody asks Kattie to dance.
The Maori boy says enigmatically, ‘Good floor, isn't it?’ or ‘Jolly music, don't you think?’ as if he revealed dark secrets. All the time, page 109 his veiled golden eyes are quite abstracted, thinking of something as personal, safe and private as a cat's ideas. Eric Chisholm has come to the dance in his slippers. Everybody sniggers, but he forgets; his father is very poor, and he wants to be a famous conchologist. Nobody under– stands, but he explains with pallid vehemence, ‘Shells—shells—things you pick up on seashores.’ He comes to the dances because his mother insists that he ought to make good connections, and that dancing is a social grace. But as if these flamboyant girls had the pearly lustre, the spiral secrets of shells.
Destiny waltz. One-two-three-dip… ‘But come, Beloved, come, it is the dawn of love, the world is at our feet, the moon of gold above.…’
I am dancing with Dal Saunders. He is one of the big, laughing boys, and the older girls sniff, and say meaningly, ‘I wouldn't sit out with him,’ which means they would, like a shot, if he asked them: or else they already have. Kattie's face is a pink blur against the wall. If you're a wallflower, it doesn't feel so bad if you smile and shut your eyes, let the dark music go gliding through you. But you needn't be. It's Kattie's mother's fault. All those white things looping up her frock like cobras.…
The Boys’ School has a fire escape. Sometimes they use it if they stay out late at nights. They all tell this story, daringly, wittily, as if each were the only one to whom it had ever happened. At the end of a perfect night, you have it off by heart.
Kattie Bryce and the Maori boy: those two are fated, the others will be all right. You can see the shadow dark against the walls, thrown in heavy relief behind their heads. It moves as they move. And it came true. The Maori boy was knocked down by a tram, and had a funeral cortege nearly a mile long. Kattie Bryce was engaged to a returned soldier who, at the last moment, drowned himself and left a note for the coroner about shell-shock.
Menton Sports Day. Eliza was wearing black silk gloves, a black hat, a white frock trimmed with flounces of the black-and-white lace Grandmother-in-China sent the Hannays years ago—almost her last present; she didn't seem to bother after the war. Even Simone opened her eyes wide and said, ‘It can't be Eliza—it's too smart.’ Little glovebuttons, jet-black, like the ones Augusta had on her sage-green delaine frock.
Kattie Bryce brought up her brother. ‘I say, won't you have an ice-cream?’ They sauntered across the green, clinging to Stephen's arms. Such a lovely day for the Sports. Of course the grass has been rolled a dozen times, but last night they shaved the banks as well, and page 110 the smell of short moist grasses, bruised daisy-stems, was still on the air. Boys ran along a sand-patch, flung back their chins, showed their teeth in agony or derision, and hurled themselves at the high-jump bar. Ominous quiver of the bar… oh, unfair that it should be so light. That little boy,- bending nearly double as he runs … he simply must clear it. And he does. A roar goes up, from the young white-flannelled lions. Bryce says proudly, ‘That's Potter. It's a record for the High.’
Heads back, elbows tucked in, knees moving in a high piston gait that would be ridiculous if it hadn't the sheer grace and power of speed, the long-distance runners sheer round the bend. ‘Oh, go it, Haig. Kick it in, can't you, Haig.’ Haig, dropping in one long slither on the right side of the tape, sits there, his ribs rising and falling. ‘Good old Haig,’ chants Stephen. Kattie's face is like a bright berry, for she is the simple sort, who'd as lief share success as steal it. Anything nice that happens to anyone, any vicarious triumph is good enough for Kattie: if she can just touch the arm of the winner and not be snubbed.
’Phillips—Custance—may I introduce a couple of friends, Miss Hannay?’ Stephen simply must break away to congratulate Good Old Haig. Sauntering through the grounds towards the college, Kattie and Phillips fall behind. Half-way up the Staircase, Custance quickly kisses Eliza.
’You look so pretty under that floppy hat. You're not annoyed, are you?’ Eliza isn't annoyed, only a little disappointed. It is the first time since growing up that she has been kissed, and she'd have preferred it to be like—
The Glory Hole again. But then she thinks of a couple of lines to fit Custance, with his long flannelled legs and his cool lips, and likes him again.
He trod the ling like a buck in spring,
And he looked like a lance in rest.3
Custance says he will see her at the Sports Ball and wants all the waltzes. So he is gone, like the shadow of a bronze boy falling cool across clean turf, clean sunlight. All the boys are the same. The great lawn is sundial for their young bodies, and they don't know it. Eliza is happy.
Simone, walking home, asks, ‘Who was the youth?’ Her voice is a needle unpicking the thread. It doesn't matter; it wasn't a wonderful bit of sewing, anyhow. Cool turf, that was what mattered, cool turf.
Breaking-up day at Chisholm School, the very last. There was a play, in French,4 so that the parents could see they were getting their page 111 money's worth, and Eliza was the witch. ‘So she won't need any makeup,’ commented Miss Hebron; but Eliza liked witch parts.
Lorna Calmont was the Princess. She had fat, limp plaits of golden hair, well past her waist. Sleep for a hundred years… sleep for a hundred years.… No, that's too good to waste on you. I'd rather have it for myself. There were real spinning-wheels on the stage, and dragons of real incense wreathed up, tenuous, chasing and swallowing one another's blue tails.
La fileuse, qui rien ne presse,
Travaille en chantant—
People's faces in the audience were featureless pink eggs, but Lorna's, as she closed her eyes for the sleep of a hundred years, was very white. The Prince came on, wearing staled crimson velvet, Eliza and her spinners were driven away.
‘Thank goodness, that's over. Oh, how my head aches. I'll never act with your horrible incense again, Eliza Hannay; it's all your fault.’
‘Of course it is. But it wasn't the incense. I was willing you to go to sleep for a hundred years. I nearly got you, too; then I changed my mind.’
The Prince, Vashti Greene, said: ‘Don't listen to her, Lorna. She's mad.’
Between items, school prizes were distributed. Miss Verriam handed Eliza the Book of Job and a Tennyson whose red bookmark lay against:
Move forward, working out the beast,
And let the ape and tiger die.5
For a moment she wondered if Miss Verriam had done it on purpose, in which case her respect for Miss Verriam would have gone up by leaps and bounds. Then she decided that her head mistress hadn't enough intelligence.
From the wings she watched a girl she had never met dancing an idyll called ‘The Spirit of the Wine’. How on earth had it got on the programme? By accident.… The girl's hair was perfectly white, and came down in a harsh square-cut shock on her shoulders. Her feet were naked, and made no sound as she moved over the stage. She wore a wine-coloured tunic, which did not hide the thick white limbs, the in-cut jewelled shoulders, that spoke of power.
The young girl raised her arms. Light as a dream, her body drifted backwards, her long steely hands supplicated the air, then linked above page 112 her head. Her body thought for her, there was not an instant's pause between flex and flex. She bent from the waist, effortless, until the inverted cup of her face touched the dust. The wine-coloured gauze moved very slightly, a sigh or a mist on the air. Long beams of light were wedded to her. She lay still, not stirring her white hair or her narrow hands. The flower was broken in its ecstasy. Eliza did not want to see it mended again, used as a trivial bouquet for sniffing and congratulations.
That, that is what we are: not this other, that you would make us. That, and after that, the worst you can say of us—why not? Dance once, and then begone.