Mamma had been taken into the saloni. She was sitting talking to the Englishwoman.
“You’ll find her a quiet, reasonable child.”
It made the reasonable child feel grave, important, while remaining unconvinced.
She was standing in a smaller room which opened off the important one where callers are received. It was a house of many rooms, whether their purpose was reasonable or not she hadn’t had time to find out, but sensed that she might approve of the house, dark and quiet, standing on the edge of this precipice.
She looked down through the closed window, through the leaves of dark yet glossy trees growing out of a wall of rock above the shining water of a small, private-seeming bay. More than anything the water consoled, its light that of the Gulf. She half-expected that if the curtain were to lift she would catch sight of the volcano on the island opposite. But the leaves were unmoved. She was reminded of the trees in the Royal Garden. As she ran past the benches with their officers and girls she heard her feet crunch on the gravel, running through the cool towards the muddy smell of ducks.
The child realized the woman was looking sideways at her, but vaguely, as though considering in the depths of her mind whether this child was black, too. So the child, who had never considered her complexion till now, sidled partially from view behind the padding of one of the rusty chairs.
“I’m sure she won’t give you any trouble,” (Mamma was saying in the saloni).
“Oh dear, no, I can see, Mrs.—er—Sklavos” carefully, “I can see she is quite the grown-up little lady.” Suddenly Mamma burst into tears, through her crying the sound of furniture a rusty stirring and another sort of motion which must have been this Englishwoman’s, she had the figure of a dressmaker’s dummy.
“It must be a comfort to know she will be on British soil.”
Mamma could have been mopping her tears. “But we are not British, Mrs. Bulpit. Eirene is a Greek.” How strange it was to hear Mamma’s voice, as though feeling its way into a foreign language. “My husband was a Greek—a Greek patriot. And I was Australian before I married. I do not think of myself as British.”
For a moment Mamma’s voice made Eirene feel foreign, when she had never thought of herself as being anything at all.
It became interesting. She supposed she ought to go into the room and hang around, be with Mamma, even if she didn’t show herself. Her future guardian made her feel shy.
Mrs. Bulpit was sucking her teeth. “…Can’t expect me not to feel English… English-born… husband, too. Reg came to Australia on leave… a W/O in the Indian Army… took a fancy… decided to settle… sick of blacks…”
The child realized the woman was looking sideways at her, but vaguely, as though considering in the depths of her mind whether this child was black, too. So the child, who had never considered her complexion till now, sidled partially from view behind the padding of one of the rusty chairs. From above a scroll where greasy heads had rested, her eyes could still take stock.
Mrs. Bulpit was a pale woman, except where the mouth had been painted over. Her forearms, hands, and face could have been molded from natural marzipan. The lips shone with crimson grease rising to a little bow. They matched the nails on the marzipan hands, one of them lying in a black lap, the other dangling from a sofa arm the color of age and dust. More than anything, more than the crimson trimmings of her face and fingers, the color of her hair made Mrs. Bulpit noticeable, the little curls with which her head was arranged were of a rich red such as you see in a windowful of new furniture. The curls had a varnished look and though they might have been freshly done they gave no life to Mrs. Bulpit’s flesh, they only emphasized its dead pallor.
She had almost eaten off the stuff she had put on her lips for arrival. Nothing to compare with the paint Mrs. Bulpit used, Mamma’s lips looked blenched and bitten.
Mamma blew her nose. “If you have any queries, there is my cousin, Mrs. Lockhart.”
She had almost eaten off the stuff she had put on her lips for arrival. Nothing to compare with the paint Mrs. Bulpit used, Mamma’s lips looked blenched and bitten.
“You may wonder,” she said in the foreign-sounding English she had begun using in this house, “why my cousin does not take Eirene. Too many of her own—then too, Alison is one of those who does not care for additional responsibility.”
“Nobody can say,” Mrs. Bulpit was saying, “that I haven’t a highly developed sense of responsibility.”
“I also thought Eirene, an only child, might feel oppressed in a large family.”
“That is correct. An only child. One myself. And she’ll have her playmate. Another little refugee. He ought to be in presently. Why he isn’t? One I told you of… English boy…”
Perhaps remembering something, Mrs. Bulpit withdrew the hand hanging from the sofa arm and plaited it with the one lying in her lap, as though preparing to protect herself against something Mamma might do or say. At the same time what sounded like a wheeze rustled out of the plastic bust of the dressmaker’s dummy.
“Nobody is wholly responsible for what they are.” Mamma’s voice sounded tired and dull.
Mrs. Bulpit sat contemplating this remark. She was at a temporary loss.
While the child’s loss felt permanent, she wondered whether to stay in the room or leave it for one of the many others, or the now forbidding precipice outside. Though relieved to have avoided the family of Lockhart cousins, she dreaded her meeting with this boy, probably lurking and listening, the other side of a none-too-solid wall as she was lurking and listening inside her solitary body. Mamma’s eaten lips and adoption of a foreign sounding accent showed her she could expect nothing from that direction. If only Papa. But Papa was dead.
“You’ll have to admit when you meet him he’s a handsome little lad, Mrs.—Sklavos. Blue eyes. And the loveliest hair—pale gold…”
Papa’s eyes were almost black. They crackled with fire when he talked about what he saw as the future. Now the future was a shapeless dread in what was a stock-still present.
She ended up leaving the saloni. The darkening house extending behind it was preferable.
He had spent most of the afternoon pitching stones into the water. The glare no longer made him squint. Salt scales had replaced the scurf of his own skin on legs and arms, now the color of Arnott’s Milk Arrowroot. (“Most Australian kiddies love these biscuits, and I expect you will too Gilbert.” He agreed they were—beaut, carefully.) He licked the scales off his left forearm before pitching his last stone. As afternoon faded, long brassy fingers of light extended from the direction of the city. They reached out at him, but fell short, distorted by ripples in mauve-green water inserting themselves in cracks of the gull-scribbled sea wall. A gull on the long slow curve of its flight let fall a squeeze of white almost like toothpaste on the pale hair. By now so dazed by sun, air, dreaming, he barely bothered.
The bombs he hadn’t heard, but knew about, exploded in his sleep.
He supposed he ought to go up, or the old girl would start yelling for him. “Gilbert? Gilbert!” It got on his tits since he had started answering to “Gil.” And now this girl. He had heard a car arriving at the house above. Car doors. Too far for voices to carry. But he shivered for the sound of the foreign voice he hadn’t heard.
The bombs he hadn’t heard, but knew about, exploded in his sleep. Nigel is gone, they told him, they wouldn’t say dead. And Aunt Gemma. And the woman at the grocer’s on the corner flipping the evening paper into a cornet, pink gums smiling too-shiny false. You could believe in the deaths of older people, but not of Nigel, any more than you yourself could die. It was too soon. He could not have told: my friend died, any more than, I, Gilbert Horsfall, am dead.
He chafed an arm in the still fierce light of late afternoon, and scratched at the white writing on the wall.
The people who shared his reluctance to speak about death, often for a different reason, told him: now that you are in the States, you are safe, all will be well, you will learn the language and become American. On the other hand, other Americans said: “Too many privileged British children, arrogant little bastards, the other fool sons of bitches are left to the bombs.” They didn’t want him, any more than he wanted to be American. He liked doughnuts and popcorn, but hated hominy grits.
What he wanted he didn’t know. To be left alone, to be himself.
He and the others, seven of them, were in the charge of Mr. and Mrs. Ballard. The friendly Americans who thought he was there to become American would not have believed they were only in transit to a place like Australia, any more than Mr. Ballard could believe in anything American. He wore a permanent squinted smile of disbelief. He shrugged off the air conditioning and squinted more than ever for the heat, running a handkerchief round inside the rim of his dog collar.
She wasn’t such a bad old stick, in spite of the long slippery teeth.
“Thank God for Australia,” Mr. Ballard said to his wife, when all the boys were out of earshot, only one wasn’t. “At least it is ours, Emily—home soil. They speak the same language.”
“More or less,” Mrs. Ballard said, who had been there already, as a governess, and moistened her long, glistening teeth.
Throughout their enforced stay in the United States, as their papers were tidied up and then during their journey across that continent, Mrs. Ballard seemed to wear the same dress, long and straight—knitted out of string, you would have said with a white collar, sometimes with points, sometimes rounded, held together at the throat by a cairngorm. The dress must have been one of a series, Gil Horsfall supposed, of similar dresses, for Mrs. Ballard either did not smell, or was too thin and dried up to generate much more than an occasional whiff.
She wasn’t such a bad old stick, in spite of the long slippery teeth. She was inclined to go for walks by herself. He had come across her on a cliff’s edge, perhaps looking at the view, he could not be sure, and once stock still in a pine forest, as though listening to the nearest, equally rooted trunk, a chipmunk unafraid of her long brown English shoes. On each occasion when she saw him her slow-breaking smile indicated that she might have been preparing to say something. But she didn’t. She folded her colorless lips over the glistening teeth. Mrs. Ballard agreed with him, as it were, that they should part company, neither having anything against the other. Gil thought how he would have liked to unpin the cairngorm and keep it for a secret. Any secrets he possessed had been left behind in London in the hurry of evacuation, since when he had acquired no more than a turkey’s wishbone during an overnight stay in Kansas City.
Mr. Ballard ensured that there was grace before meals and communal prayers night and morning. Like a good clergyman’s wife Mrs. Ballard went along with it, but you could not tell whether she was praying behind her dry breathing. Gil wondered what the other boys prayed. They were a crummy lot. Some of them mumbled as they squirmed on their knees, and there was one thoughtful nose-picker. Gil did not pray. At night he hugged the darkness to him and hoped for protection from the bombs he had neither seen nor heard, but which sometimes exploded in his sleep. Once he had become a corpse until the warden told fellow rescuers this was the body of Nigel Brown.
As the train was slowly pulling out of Tucson, Arizona, Mrs. Ballard with her back turned, standing on the platform watching the houses sidle past, the kids farther down the car filling Dixie Cups with ice water they didn’t need or fooling with the negro attendant. Mr. Ballard sat without his hat telling a Rotary member from Chicago, “All these boys are from wealthy or in some way important families, and my wife and I are doing our bit seeing them through to relatives or friends in Australia.”
“Is that so?” said the Rotary member, not with undue emphasis, but because he had just regurgitated some of the cornbread he had eaten for breakfast.
“They seem a spunky lot,” he said, to do his duty, after glancing back down the car at the gaggle of grey-flanneled young Britishers.
“The father of Horsfall, this little fellow over here,” the clergyman said, “has a staff job at New Delhi. Gilbert is a bit on the quiet side. Which way he goes remains to be seen.”
“Which way—how…?” mused the gentleman from Chicago, flatulence getting the better of him.
“Impossible to say how he’d turn out.”
“So long as he isn’t one of these nuts who take the ice-pick to decent folks.”
“I’m not suggesting…” Mr. Ballard blushed for his indiscretion in giving a stranger, an American at that, such an opportunity.
He was about to join his wife on the platform when the stranger saved him the trouble by announcing, “I gotta leave you, sir. I got the gas awful bad.”
Gil, too, was glad when the Rotary gent had gone to seek relief from his gas. He wondered about the ice-pick—he had never seen one. He was in no way the nut that most other people seemed to be. But which way to go? Would anyone ever tell him? His father was more “Colonel Horsfall” than his father, his mother a respectful memory in a Kensington flat and a varnished box at St. Mary Abbots.
Of all this the Ballards were less than appreciative, but you could not gainsay a patroness whose lizard handbag was stuffed with dollar bills.
If he didn’t feel miserable it was because so much was happening around him. In San Francisco benefactors waylaid them in the street and in spite of the embarrassed protests from the Ballards, carried off the whole party to a seafood restaurant where Gil Horsfall ordered soft-shell crabs, and the others settled for fried fish.
Snotty Thirkell, the thoughtful nose-picker of prayer-time, said out loud that soft-shell crabs were the most expensive item on the menu.
But his benefactress expressed approval. “Quite right too. You’ve got to pay the price for adventure.”
Of all this the Ballards were less than appreciative, but you could not gainsay a patroness whose lizard handbag was stuffed with dollar bills. If it had been England and peacetime, none of it would have happened, the Ballards would have hurried the boys away from anyone so vulgar.
They were always hurrying, chivvying their charges when in motion. Gil in particular was inclined to dawdle because he liked to look at things and plodding back to their modest hotel on their last night in San Francisco with Gil the endmost vertebra of the crocodile tail, a black man waved his cock at him from the dark entrance to a Gothic Tower. So there was all this, and finally the flying boat carrying them to Australia which touched down flip-flapping across the flat waters of the bay, at Sydney.
Her string dress looked more than usually unattractive, ruched, shrunken, hairy from prolonged wear, the white collar, grubby from the flight, and harassed by arrival, held together at the throat, not by the familiar cairngorm brooch, but an outsize safety pin.
The end of acquaintanceship with his temporary guardians made no great demands on him, there were too many boys for the Ballards to become personal and emotional about any single one of them. In any case, he was not emotional, unless in those secret compartments where he never allowed anyone to enter. True, he might have been preparing on those two occasions when he had come across Mrs. Ballard, once on a cliff’s edge, and again in a pine forest where each had decided against what could have become a terrifying intimacy. And now at the end, on the pier at Sydney, in a turmoil of luggage, relatives and friends, Mrs. Ballard seemed to be avoiding him, as he avoided her. Her string dress looked more than usually unattractive, ruched, shrunken, hairy from prolonged wear, the white collar, grubby from the flight, and harassed by arrival, held together at the throat, not by the familiar cairngorm brooch, but an outsize safety pin.
It was not difficult to avoid her because the person to whom he was consigned had made herself known to Mr. Ballard, who was handing over his boys with relief, as though they were parcels, unregistered ones at that.
Gil left his former guardians and the person who was to be his keeper, to exchange the necessary information most of which would be uninteresting if not unbelievable. Already the faces of the other boys, his forced companions of so many weeks, were closing against one another as a fresh phase of life swallowed them up. So he went and stood on the edge of the pier, on the edge of the harbor, which by now was a sheet of silver that was stitched with details of gulls’ wings. There was a smell of weed and shellfish rising as the sea sucked at slimy woodwork underpinning the world of human traffic.
They were crossing the ghost of a great bridge.
“You should see us in better times,” she told him.
“This is the brown-out—for the war.”
He shivered slightly as they bowled alongside by side in the taxi.
“Cold, are you? Well, it’s winter here. You’ll soon get used to everything seeming topsy-turvy.”
In fact he felt hot in his English flannel but there was no need to tell her, and soon they were burrowing into the closed fug of the house she had brought him to. He shivered worse than ever.
“This is your new house,” she told him.
His room was larger than any he had ever slept in, furnished with oddments and two narrow beds, one of them made up, the other with a naked mattress on it, as close to opposing walls as they could get.
The room, he soon realized, was not his. It belonged to an enlarged, near life-sized photograph.
“My husband,” she explained needlessly. She had talked about him all the way across.
Knowing his dead host by heart he no more than glanced at the photograph.
“I have some fish fillets for your tea,” she told him while poking at a pan from which a blue smoke was rising. “What’s your favorite fish, Gilbert?”
“Soft-shelled crabs…” It was more a murmured memory than a reply to her question.
“Never heard of ’em,” she said firmly, and poked harder at the pan she was tending. “I hope you’re not difficult about your food—not a finicky boy, Gilbert. Mr. Bulpit went for plaice and chips when he was at Home.”
Via the warrant officer, she got back to “the Colonel” and “Your dear Mother, to whom I was devoted—way back from our Indian days—such a thoughtful lady.”
After the fish fillets they really got down to business, at a cane table with brass ashtrays on the kitchen’s fringe. Lahore, Poona, Simla, Bangalore, Bombay—all the old Indian names were trotted out, like the echoes from a snapshot album in Kensington. He closed down while she carried on.
There was the pub he had heard about in the taxi.
“Mind you, I don’t take to public houses, and never ever played any part except I was there if a lady was needed to smooth things over. Some of those barmaids. Reg—Mr. Bulpit—fancied a public and made a success of the old Imperial, then dropped dead—in that same basket chair where you’re sitting—while enjoying ’is evenin’ cup of Darjeeling.”
She was steaming from resentment rather than grief, for something that had been done to her.
Gil shifted in the dead man’s chair and made it creak. “Why was the clergyman’s wife wearing a safety pin in her collar?” Mrs. Bulpit suddenly asked.
“Had to keep it together, I suppose.”
He said he would go to bed. The photo-portrait had been hung in such a way that it leaned outward from the wall and threatened to crush any usurper with its vast slab of compressed meat.
Several of the boys were Lockharts and there were others, too small to be at school. Lockharts took him down to the lower end of the yard where tree roots had lifted up the asphalt. They asked him what he had come here for. He couldn’t help it, he was sent, he said. They didn’t want a lot of Poms. He pointed out that he was only one. He talked like a girl, the oldest Lockhart jeered. He hit out at the Lockhart face, which began to jigger and blink as if standing on a fixed spring. Then the lot of them went into action. They rubbed his face in the asphalt where the tree roots had lifted it up.
The bell rang for school, or what might have been the end of a round and they all marched up towards the classrooms past trees dripping blood from their armpit-hair.
Ma Bulpit said, “You’ll find it hard till you know the ropes. Those Lockharts… Australians mean well.”
She brought iodine—white, never used anything but. For one dressed permanently in black, she seemed to find peculiar virtues in white—in addition to iodine, port and rum (“Mind you, I’m not a drinker, it’s only sociable to join in.”)
As she dabbed, the fire shot through his shin and into his eyes. He wasn’t crying, only watering.
Patrick White was born in England in 1912 and raised in Australia. He became the most revered figure in modern Australian literature, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. He died in September 1990. This has been excerpted from the unfinished posthumous novel, The Hanging Garden.