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The Aloe

One — Last Moments Before

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Last Moments Before

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Last Moments Before

There Was not an inch of room for Lottie and Kezia in the buggy. When Pat swung them on top of the luggage they wobbled; the Grandmother's lap was full and Linda Burnell could not possibly have held a lump of a child on hers for such a distance. Isabel, very superior, perched beside Pat on the driver's seat. Hold-alls, bags and bandboxes were piled upon the floor.

‘These are absolute necessities that I will not let out of my sight for one instant,’ said Linda Burnell, page 4 her voice trembling with fatigue and over-excitement.

Lottie and Kezia stood on the patch of lawn just inside the gate all ready for the fray, in their reefer coats with brass anchor buttons and little round caps with battle-ship ribbons. Hand in hand. They stared with round inquiring eyes, first at the ‘absolute necessities’ and then at their Mother.

‘We shall simply have to leave them. That is all. We shall simply have to cast them off,’ said Linda Burnell. A strange little laugh flew from her lips; she leaned back upon the buttoned leather cushions and shut her eyes … laughing silently.

Happily, at that moment, Mrs. Samuel Josephs, who lived next door and had been watching the scene from behind her drawing-room blind, rustled down the garden path.

‘Why nod leave the children with be for the after-doon, Brs. Burnell? They could go on the dray with the storeban when he comes in the eveding. Those thigs on the path have to go. Dodn't they?'

‘Yes, everything outside the house has to go,’ said Linda Burnell, waving a white hand at the tables and chairs that stood, impudently, on their heads in front of the empty house.

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‘Well, dodn't you worry, Brs. Burnell. Loddie and Kezia can have tea with by children and I'll see them safely on the dray afterwards.'

She leaned her fat, creaking body across the gate and smiled reassuringly. Linda Burnell pretended to consider.

‘Yes, it really is quite the best plan. I am extremely obliged to you, Mrs. Samuel Josephs, I'm sure. Children, say “Thank you” to Mrs. Samuel Josephs….'

(Two subdued chirrups: ‘Thank you, Mrs. Samuel Josephs.')

‘And be good, obedient little girls and—come closer'—they advanced—‘do not forget to tell Mrs. Samuel Josephs when you want to …'

‘Yes, Mother.'

‘Dodn't worry, Brs. Burnell.'

At the last moment Kezia let go Lottie's hand and darted towards the buggy.

‘I want to kiss Grandma “good-bye” again.’ Her heart was bursting.

‘Oh, dear me!’ wailed Linda Burnell.

But the grandmother leant her charming head in the lilac flowery bonnet towards Kezia, and when Kezia searched her face she said—‘It's all right, my darling. Be good.'

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The buggy rolled off up the road, Isabel, proudly sitting by Pat, her nose turned up at all the world, Linda Burnell, prostrate and crying behind her veil, and the grandmother rummaging among the curious oddments she had put in her black silk reticule at the last moment for lavender smelling salts to give her daughter.

The buggy twinkled away in the sunlight and fine golden dust—up the hill and over. Kezia bit her lip hard, but Lottie, carefully finding her handkerchief first, set up a howl.

‘Mo-ther! Gran'ma!'

Mrs. Samuel Josephs, like an animated black silk tea-cosy, waddled to Lottie's rescue.

‘It's all right, by dear. There-there, ducky! Be a brave child. You come and blay in the nursery.'

She put her arm round weeping Lottie and led her away. Kezia followed, making a face at Mrs. Samuel Josephs’ placket, which was undone as usual with two long pink corset laces hanging out of it.

The Samuel Josephs were not a family. They were a swarm. The moment you entered the house they cropped up and jumped out at you from under page 7 the tables, through the stair rails, behind the doors, behind the coats in the passage. Impossible to count them: impossible to distinguish between them. Even in the family groups that Mrs. Samuel Josephs caused to be taken twice yearly—herself and Samuel in the middle—Samuel with parchment roll clenched on knee and she with the youngest girl on hers—you never could be sure how many children really were there. You counted them, and then you saw another head or another small boy in a white sailor suit perched on the arm of a basket chair. All the girls were fat, with black hair tied up in red ribbons and eyes like buttons. The little ones had scarlet faces but the big ones were white, with blackheads and dawning moustaches. The boys had the same jetty hair, the same button eyes, but they were further adorned with ink black finger nails. (The girls bit theirs, so the black didn't show.) And every single one of them started a pitched battle as soon as possible after birth with every single other.

When Mrs. Samuel Josephs was not turning up their clothes or down their clothes (as the sex might be) and beating them with a hair brush, she called this pitched battle ‘airing their lungs.’ She seemed to take a pride in it and to bask in it from far away page 8 like a fat general watching through field glasses his troops in violent action …

Lottie's weeping died down as she ascended the Samuel Josephs’ stairs, but the sight of her at the nursery door with swollen eyes and a blob of a nose gave great satisfaction to the little S. J.'s, who sat on two benches before a long table covered with American cloth and set out with immense platters of bread and dripping and two brown jugs that fairly steamed.

‘Hullo! You've been crying!'

‘Ooh! Your eyes have gone right in!'

‘Doesn't her nose look funny!'

‘You're all red-an'-patchy!'

Lottie was quite a success. She felt it and swelled, smiling timidly.

‘Go and sit by Zaidee, ducky,’ said Mrs. Samuel Josephs. ‘And Kezia—you sit at the end by Boses.'

Moses grinned and pinched her behind as she sat down, but she pretended to take no notice. She did hate boys!

‘Which will you have?’ asked Stanley (a big one), leaning across the table very politely and smiling at Kezia. ‘Which will you have to begin with—strawberries and cream or bread and dripping?'

‘Strawberries and cream, please,’ said she.

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‘Ah-h-h!’ How they all laughed and beat the table with their teaspoons! ‘Wasn't that a take in! Wasn't it! Wasn't it, now! Didn't he fox her! Good old Stan!'

‘Ma! She thought it was real!'

Even Mrs. Samuel Josephs, pouring out the milk and water, smiled indulgently. It was a merry tea.

After tea the young Samuel Josephs were turned out to grass until summoned to bed by their servant girl standing in the yard and banging on a tin tray with a potato masher.

‘Know what we'll do,’ said Miriam. ‘Let's go an’ play hide-an'-seek all over Burnell's. Their back door is still open, because they haven't got the sideboard out yet. I heard Ma tell Glad Eyes she wouldn't take such ole rubbish to a new house! Come on! Come on!'

‘No, I don't want to,’ said Kezia, shaking her head.

‘Ooh! Don't be soft. Come on—do!'

Miriam caught hold of one of her hands. Zaidee snatched at the other.

‘I don't not want to either, if Kezia doesn't,’ said Lottie, standing firm. But she, too, was whirled page 10 away. Now, the whole fun of the game for the S. J.'s was that the Burnell kids didn't want to play. In the yard they paused. Burnell's yard was small and square with flower beds on either side. All down one side big clumps of arum lilies aired their rich beauty, on the other side there was nothing but a straggle of what the children called ‘Grandmother's pincushions,’ a dull, pinkish flower, but so strong it would push its way and grow through a crack of concrete.

‘You've only got one w. at your place,’ said Miriam scornfully. ‘We've got two at ours. One for men and one for ladies. The one for men hasn't got a seat.'

‘Hasn't got a seat!’ cried Kezia. ‘I don't believe you.'

‘It's-true-it's-true-it's-true! Isn't it, Zaidee?’ And Miriam began to dance and hop, showing her flannelette drawers.

‘Course it is,’ said Zaidee. ‘Well, you are a baby, Kezia!'

‘I don't not believe it either if Kezia doesn't,’ said Lottie, after a pause.

But they never paid any attention to what Lottie said.

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Alice Samuel Josephs tugged at a lily leaf, twisted it off, turned it over. It was covered on the under side with tiny blue and grey snails.

‘How much does your Pa give you for collecting snails?’ she demanded.

‘Nothing!’ said Kezia.

‘Reely? Doesn't he give you anything? Our Pa gives us ha'penny a hundred. We put them in a bucket with salt and they all go bubbly like spittle. Don't you get any pocket money?'

‘Yes, I get a penny for having my hair washed,’ said Kezia.

‘An' a penny a tooth,’ said Lottie, softly.

‘My! Is that all? One day Stanley took the money out of all our money boxes and Pa was so mad he rang up the police station.'

‘No, he didn't. Not reely,’ said Zaidee. ‘He only took the telephone down an’ spoke in it to frighten Stan.'

‘Ooh, youfibber! Ooh, you are a fibber,’ screamed Alice, feeling her story totter. ‘But Stan was so frightened he caught hold of Pa and screamed and bit him and then he lay on the floor and banged with his head as hard as ever.'

‘Yes,’ said Zaidee, warming. ‘And at dinner when page 12 the door bell rang an’ Pa said to Stan “There they are—they've come for you,” do you know what Stan did?’ Her button eyes snapped with joy. ‘He was sick—all over the table!'

‘How perfeckly horrid,’ said Kezia, but even as she spoke she had one of her ‘ideas.’ It frightened her so that her knees trembled, but it made her so happy she nearly screamed aloud with joy.

‘Know a new game,’ said she. ‘All of you stand in a row and each person holds a narum lily head. I count one—two—three, and when “three” comes all of you have to bite out the yellow bit and scrunch it up—and who swallows first—wins.'

The Samuel Josephs suspected nothing. They liked the game. A game where something had to be destroyed always fetched them. Savagely they broke off the big white blooms and stood in a row before Kezia.

‘Lottie can't play,’ said Kezia.

But any way it didn't matter. Lottie was still patiently bending a lily head this way and that—it would not come off the stem for her.

‘One—two—three!’ said Kezia.

She flung up her hands with joy as the Samuel Josephs bit, chewed, made dreadful faces, spat, page 13 screamed, and rushed to Burnell's garden tap. But that was no good—only a trickle came out. Away they sped, yelling.

‘Ma! Ma! Kezia's poisoned us.'

‘Ma! Ma! Me tongue's burning off.'

‘Ma! Ooh, Ma!'

‘Whatever is the matter?’ asked Lottie, mildly, still twisting the frayed, oozing stem. ‘Kin I bite my lily off like this, Kezia?'

‘No, silly.’ Kezia caught her hand. ‘It burns your tongue like anything.'

‘Is that why they all ran away?’ said Lottie. She did not wait for an answer. She drifted to the front of the house and began to dust the chair-legs on the lawn with a corner of her pinafore.

Kezia felt very pleased. Slowly she walked up the back steps and through the scullery into the kitchen. Nothing was left in it except a lump of gritty yellow soap in one corner of the window-sill and a piece of flannel stained with a blue bag in another. The fireplace was choked with a litter of rubbish. She poked among it for treasure, but found nothing except a hair-tidy with a heart painted on it that had belonged to the servant girl. Even that she left lying, page 14 and she slipped through the narrow passage into the drawing-room. The venetian blind was pulled down but not drawn close. Sunlight, piercing the green chinks, shone once again upon the purple urns brimming over with yellow chrysanthemums that patterned the walls. The hideous box was quite bare, so was the dining-room except for the sideboard that stood in the middle, forlorn, its shelves edged with a scallop of black leather. But this room had a ‘funny’ smell. Kezia lifted her head and sniffed again, to remember. Silent as a kitten she crept up the ladder-like stairs. In Mr. and Mrs. Burnell's room she found a pill box, black and shiny outside and red in, holding a blob of cotton wool. ‘I could keep a bird's egg in that,’ she decided. The only other room in the house (the little tin bathroom did not count) was their room where Isabel and Lottie had slept in one bed and she and Grandma in another. She knew there was nothing there—she had watched Grandma pack. Oh, yes, there was! A stay button stuck in a crack of the floor and in another crack some beads and a long needle. She went over to the window and leaned against it, pressing her hands against the pane.

From the window you saw beyond the yard a deep gully filled with tree ferns and a thick tangle of page 15 wild green, and beyond that there stretched the esplanade bounded by a broad stone wall against which the sea chafed and thundered. (Kezia had been born in that room. She had come forth squealing out of a reluctant mother in the teeth of a ‘Southerly Buster.’ The Grandmother, shaking her before the window, had seen the sea rise in green mountains and sweep the esplanade. The little house was like a shell to its loud booming. Down in the gully the wild trees lashed together and big gulls wheeling and crying skimmed past the misty window.)

Kezia liked to stand so before the window. She liked the feeling of the cold shining glass against her hot little palms and she liked to watch the funny white tops that came on her fingers when she pressed them hard against the pane.

As she stood the day flickered out and sombre dusk entered the empty house, thievish dusk stealing the shapes of things, sly dusk painting the shadows. At her heels crept the wind, snuffling and howling. The windows shook, a creaking came from the walls and floors, a piece of loose iron on the roof banged forlornly—Kezia did not notice these things severally, but she was suddenly quite, quite still with wide page 16 open eyes and knees pressed together—terribly frightened. Her old bogey, the dark, had overtaken her, and now there was no lighted room to make a despairing dash for. Useless to call ‘Grandma'—useless to wait for the servant girl's cheerful stumping up the stairs to pull down the blinds and light the bracket lamp … There was only Lottie in the garden. If she began to call Lottie now and went on calling her loudly all the while she flew down the stairs and out of the house she might escape from It in time. It was round like the sun. It had a face. It smiled, but It had no eyes. It was yellow. When she was put to bed with two drops of aconite in a medicine glass It breathed very loudly and firmly and It had been known on certain particularly fearful occasions to turn round and round. It hung in the air. That was all she knew and even that much had been very difficult to explain to the Grandmother. Nearer came the terror and more plain to feel the ‘silly’ smile. She snatched her hands from the window pane, opened her mouth to call Lottie, and fancied that she did call loudly, though she made no sound … It was at the top of the stairs; It was at the bottom of the stairs, waiting in the little dark passage, guarding the back door—But Lottie was at the back door, too.

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‘Oh, there you are!’ she said cheerfully. ‘The storeman's here. Everything's on the dray —and three horses, Kezia. Mrs. Samuel Josephs has given us a big shawl to wear round us, and she says button up your coat. She won't come out because of asthma, and she says “never do it again”.’ Lottie was very important.

‘Now then, you kids,’ called the storeman. He hooked his big thumbs under their arms. Up they swung. Lottie arranged the shawl ‘most beautifully,’ and the storeman tucked up their feet in a piece of old blanket. ‘Lift up—easy does it.’ They might have been a couple of young ponies.

The storeman felt over the cords holding his load, unhooked the brake chain from the wheel, and whistling, he swung up beside them.

‘Keep close to me,’ said Lottie, ‘because otherwise you pull the shawl away from my side, Kezia.'

But Kezia edged up to the storeman. He towered beside her, big as a giant, and he smelled of nuts and wooden boxes.

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