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The Garden Party and Other Stories

IX

IX

A strange company assembled in the Burnells’ washhouse after tea. Round the table page 47 there sat a bull, a rooster, a donkey that kept forgetting it was a donkey, a sheep and a bee. The washhouse was the perfect place for such a meeting because they could make as much noise as they liked, and nobody ever interrupted. It was a small tin shed standing apart from the bungalow. Against the wall there was a deep trough and in the corner a copper with a basket of clothes-pegs on top of it. The little window, spun over with cobwebs, had a piece of candle and a mouse-trap on the dusty sill. There were clotheslines criss-crossed overhead and, hanging from a peg on the wall, a very big, a huge, rusty horseshoe. The table was in the middle with a form at either side.

“You can’t be a bee, Kezia. A bee’s not an animal. It’s a ninseck.”

“Oh, but I do want to be a bee frightfully,” wailed Kezia...A tiny bee, all yellow-furry, with striped legs. She drew her legs up under her and leaned over the table. She felt she was a bee.

“A ninseck must be an animal,” she said stoutly. “It makes a noise. It’s not like a fish.”

“I’m a bull, I’m a bull!” cried Pip. And he gave such a tremendous bellow- -how did he make that noise?—that Lottie looked quite alarmed.

“I’ll be a sheep,” said little Rags. “A whole lot of sheep went past this morning.”

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“How do you know?”

“Dad heard them. Baa!” He sounded like the little lamb that trots behind and seems to wait to be carried.

“Cock-a-doodle-do!” shrilled Isabel. With her red cheeks and bright eyes she looked like a rooster.

“What’ll I be?” Lottie asked everybody, and she sat there smiling, waiting for them to decide for her. It had to be an easy one.

“Be a donkey, Lottie.” It was Kezia’s suggestion. “Hee-haw! You can’t forget that.”

“Hee-haw!” said Lottie solemnly. “When do I have to say it?”

“I’ll explain, I’ll explain,” said the bull. It was he who had the cards. He waved them round his head. “All be quiet! All listen!” And he waited for them. “Look here, Lottie.” He turned up a card. “It’s got two spots on it—see? Now, if you put that card in the middle and somebody else has one with two spots as well, you say ‘Hee-haw,’ and the card’s yours.”

“Mine?” Lottie was round-eyed. “To keep?”

“No, silly. Just for the game, see? Just while we’re playing.” The bull was very cross with her.

“Oh, Lottie, you are a little silly,” said the proud rooster.

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Lottie looked at both of them. Then she hung her head; her lip quivered. “I don’t want to play,” she whispered. The others glanced at one another like conspirators. All of them knew what that meant. She would go away and be discovered somewhere standing with her pinny thrown over her head, in a corner, or against a wall, or even behind a chair.

“Yes, you do, Lottie. It’s quite easy,” said Kezia.

And Isabel, repentant, said exactly like a grown-up, “Watch me, Lottie, and you’ll soon learn.”

“Cheer up, Lot,” said Pip. “There, I know what I’ll do. I’ll give you the first one. It’s mine, really, but I’ll give it to you. Here you are.” And he slammed the card down in front of Lottie.

Lottie revived at that. But now she was in another difficulty. “I haven’t got a hanky,” she said; “I want one badly, too.”

“Here, Lottie, you can use mine.” Rags dipped into his sailor blouse and brought up a very wet-looking one, knotted together. “Be very careful,” he warned her. “Only use that corner. Don’t undo it. I’ve got a little starfish inside I’m going to try and tame.”

“Oh, come on, you girls,” said the bull. “And mind—you’re not to look at your cards. You’ve got to keep your hands under the table till I say ‘Go.’”

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Smack went the cards round the table. They tried with all their might to see, but Pip was too quick for them. It was very exciting, sitting there in the washhouse; it was all they could do not to burst into a little chorus of animals before Pip had finished dealing.

“Now, Lottie, you begin.”

Timidly Lottie stretched out a hand, took the top card off her pack, had a good look at it—it was plain she was counting the spots—and put it down.

“No, Lottie, you can’t do that. You mustn’t look first. You must turn it the other way over.”

“But then everybody will see it the same time as me,” said Lottie.

The game proceeded. Mooe-ooo-er! The bull was terrible. He charged over the table and seemed to eat the cards up.

Bss-ss! said the bee.

Cock-a-doodle-do! Isabel stood up in her excitement and moved her elbows like wings.

Baa! Little Rags put down the King of Diamonds and Lottie put down the one they called the King of Spain. She had hardly any cards left.

“Why don’t you call out, Lottie?”

“I’ve forgotten what I am,” said the donkey woefully.

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“Well, change! Be a dog instead! Bow-wow!”

“Oh yes. That’s much easier.” Lottie smiled again. But when she and Kezia both had a one Kezia waited on purpose. The others made signs to Lottie and pointed. Lottie turned very red; she looked bewildered, and at last she said, “Hee-haw! Ke-zia.”

“Ss! Wait a minute!” They were in the very thick of it when the bull stopped them, holding up his hand. “What’s that? What’s that noise?”

“What noise? What do you mean?” asked the rooster.

“Ss! Shut up! Listen!” They were mouse-still. “I thought I heard a—a sort of knocking,” said the bull.

“What was it like?” asked the sheep faintly.

No answer.

The bee gave a shudder. “Whatever did we shut the door for?” she said softly. Oh, why, why had they shut the door?

While they were playing, the day had faded; the gorgeous sunset had blazed and died. And now the quick dark came racing over the sea, over the sand- hills, up the paddock. You were frightened to look in the corners of the washhouse, and yet you had to look with all your might. And somewhere, far away, grandma was lighting a lamp. The blinds were being page 52 pulled down; the kitchen fire leapt in the tins on the mantelpiece.

“It would be awful now,” said the bull, “if a spider was to fall from the ceiling on to the table, wouldn’t it?”

“Spiders don’t fall from ceilings.”

“Yes, they do. Our Min told us she’d seen a spider as big as a saucer, with long hairs on it like a gooseberry.”

Quickly all the little heads were jerked up; all the little bodies drew together, pressed together.

“Why doesn’t somebody come and call us?” cried the rooster.

Oh, those grown-ups, laughing and snug, sitting in the lamp-light, drinking out of cups! They’d forgotten about them. No, not really forgotten. That was what their smile meant. They had decided to leave them there all by themselves.

Suddenly Lottie gave such a piercing scream that all of them jumped off the forms, all of them screamed too. “A face—a face looking!” shrieked Lottie.

It was true, it was real. Pressed against the window was a pale face, black eyes, a black beard.

“Grandma! Mother! Somebody!”

But they had not got to the door, tumbling over one another, before it opened for Uncle Jonathan. He had come to take the little boys home.