Authors: Colleen McCullough
Book Jacket Information
In this exhilarating new novel, Colleen McCullough takes us back to 1960 and Sydney’s Kings Cross - and the story of a young woman determined to defy convention.
Twenty-one-year-old Harriet, a newly qualified X-ray technician earning a coveted male wage, ignores her father’s warning that “only fools, Bohemians and tarts live at Kings Cross” and moves into Mrs Delvecchio Schwartz’s rooming house. There she discovers that Mrs Delvecchio Schwartz has more sources of income than rents. She casts horoscopes, reads tarot cards, and gazes into her crystal ball - far more profitable!
But it is mute fouryear-old Flo - her mother’s medium and beloved angel puss who captures Harriet’s heart.
As she learns about men, love, and tarot cards, Harriet finds that following your heart is not always easy. And protecting those you care for most can be hardest of all.
Angel Puss vividly evokes the dynamism and passions of a Kings Cross that has gone: a world of artists, gays, intellectuals, transvestites and eccentrics, where everyone knew the Vice Squad, loathed wowsers, and drank threestar brandy.
But most of all, Angel Puss is the story of women’s love for children, and the sacrifices a woman will make to protect and nurture a beloved child.
Colleen McCullough lives on Norfolk Island with her husband Ric Robinson and a cat named Poindexter.
Cover illustrations by Colleen McCullough Author photograph by Louise Donald *HarperCollinsPublishers www_harpercollins.com.au For Max Lambert Much loved friend
How on earth can I get rid of David? Don’t think that I haven’t contemplated murder, but I wouldn’t get away with murder any more than I got away with the bikini I bought myself with the five quid Granny gave me for Christmas.
“Take it back, my girl, and bring home something onepiece with a modesty panel across the business area,” Mum said.
Truth to tell, I was a bit horrified when the mirror showed me how much of me that bikini put on display, including sideburns of black pubic hair I’d never noticed when they lurked behind a modesty panel. The very thought of plucking out a million pubic hairs sent me back to exchange the bikini for an Esther Williams model in the latest colour, American Beauty. Sort of a rich, reddish pink. The shop assistant said I looked ravishing in it, but who is going to ravish me, with David Bloody Murchison hovering over my carcass like a dog guarding a bone? Certainly not David Bloody Murchison!
It was up over the hundred today, so I went down to the beach to christen the new costume. The surf was running high, pretty unusual for Bronte, but the waves looked like green satin sausages-dumpers, no good for body surfing.
I spread my towel on the sand, slathered zinc cream all over my nose, pulled on my matching American Beauty swim cap, and ran towards the water.
“It’s too rough to go in, you’ll get dumped,” said a voice. David. David Bloody Murchison. If he suggests the safety of the kids’ bogey hole, I thought, girding my modesty-panelled loins, there is going to be a fight.
“Let’s go round to the bogey hole, it’s safe,” he said. “And get flattened by kids bombing us? No!” I snarled, and launched into the fight. Though “fight” is not the correct word. I yell and carry on, David just looks superior and refuses to bite. But today’s fight produced a new rocket-I finally got up the gumption to inform him that I was tired of being a virgin.
“Let’s have an affair,” I said. “Don’t be silly,” he said, unruffled.
“I am not being silly! Everybody I know has had an affair-except me!
Dammit, David, I’m twenty-one, and here I am engaged to a bloke who won’t even kiss me with his mouth open!”
He patted me gently on one shoulder and sat down on his towel. “Harriet,”
he announced in that toffee-nosed, super-genteel Catholic boys’ college voice of his, “it’s
time we set a wedding date. I have my doctorate, the C.S.LR.O. has offered me my own lab and a research grant, we’ve been going out together for four years, and engaged for one. Affairs are a sin. Marriage isn’t.”
“Mum, I want to break off my engagement to David!” I said to her when I got home from the beach, my new costume unbaptised.
“Then tell him so, dear,” she said.
“Have you ever tried telling David Murchison that you don’t want to marry him any more?” I demanded. Mum giggled. “Well, no. I’m already married.”
Oh, I hate it when Mum is funny at my expense!
But I battled on. “The trouble is that I was only sixteen when I met him, seventeen when he started taking me out, and in those days it was terrific to have a boyfriend I didn’t need to fight off. But Mum, he’s soso hidebound!
Here I am of an age to consent, but he doesn’t treat me any differently than he did when I was a mere seventeen! I feel like a fly stuck in amber.”
Mum’s a good stick, so she didn’t start moralising, though she did look a bit concerned.
“If you don’t want to marry him, Harriet, then don’t. But he is a very good catch, dear. Handsome, well-builtand such a bright future ahead of him! Look at what’s happened to all your friends, especially Merle. They take up with chaps who just aren’t mature and sensible like David, so they keep getting hurt.
Nothing comes of it. David’s stuck to you like glue, he always will.”
“I know,” I said through my teeth. “Merle still nags me on the subject of David-he’s divine, I don’t know how lucky I am. But honestly, he’s a pain in the bum! I’ve been with him for so long that every other bloke I know thinks I’m already taken-I never have an opportunity to find out what the rest of the male world is like, dammit!”
But she didn’t really listen. Mum and Dad approve of David, always have.
Maybe if I’d had a sister, or been closer in age to my brothers-it’s hard being an accident of the wrong sex! I mean, there are Gavin and Peter in their middle thirties, still living at home, shagging hordes of women in the back of their van on top of a waterproof mattress, partnering Dad in our sporting goods shop and playing cricket in their spare time-the life of Riley! But I have to share a room with Granny, who pees in a potty which she empties on the grass at the bottom of the backyard. Pongs a treat.
“Think yourself lucky, Roger, that I don’t chuck it on next-door’s washing”
is all she says when Dad tries to remonstrate.
What a good idea this diary is! I’ve encountered enough weird and wonderful psychiatrists to realise that I now have a “medium through which to vent frustrations and repressions”. It was Merle suggested I keep a diary-I suspect she’d like to peek in it whenever she visits, but no chance of that. I intend to store it propped against the skirting board underneath Granny’s bed right in line with Potty.
Tonight’s wishes: No David Murchison in my life. No Potty in my life. No curried sausages in my life. A room all to myself. An engagement ring so that I could chuck it in David’s face. He said he wasn’t giving me one because it’s a waste of money. What a miser!
I landed the job! After I sat my finals at the Sydney Tech last year, I applied to the Royal Queens Hospital X-ray Department for a position as a trained technician, and today the postie brought a letter of acceptance! I am to start this Monday as a senior X-ray technician at the biggest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere-more than a thousand beds! Makes Ryde Hospital, my old alma mater, look like a dinghy alongside the Queen Elizabeth. From where I am now, I should never have done my training at Ryde Hospital, but at the time I thought it was a brilliant idea when David suggested it. His elder brother, Ned, was a registrar there-a friend at court. Hah! He acted as my watchdog. Every time someone male gave me a come-hither look, Ned Bloody Murchison warned him off-I was his brother’s girl, so no poaching on taken preserves! In the early days I didn’t mind, but it became a colossal bog as I grew out of my teenage uncertainty and humility, started thinking occasionally that X or Y looked like he’d be fun to go out with.
Training at Ryde did have one advantage, though. It takes two hours on public transport to get there from Bronte, and studying on public transport beats trying to study in the Purcell residence, between Granny and Mum watching television and the men usurping the whole evening to wash the dishes while they yarn cricket, cricket, cricket. Clint Walker and Efrem Zimbalist Junior in the lounge room, Keith Miller and Don Bradman in the kitchen, and no doors between all this and the only spot to study, the dining room table.
Give me a bus or a train any day. Guess what? I topped everything! Highest marks possible. That’s why I got the job at Royal Queens. When the results came out, Mum and Dad nagged a bit because when I’d finished at Randwick High, I refused to go to Uni and do a degree in science or medicine. Topping X-ray rubbed my lack of ambition in, I suppose. But who wants to go to Uni and suffer the slings and arrows of all those males who don’t want women in men’s professions? Not me!
I started work this morning. Nine o’clock. Royal Queens is so much closer to Bronte than Ryde! If I walk the last mile-and-a-bit, I only have a twenty-minute bus ride.
Because I applied at Tech, I’d never been to the place before, only gone past it on a few occasions when we
went south to visit someone or have a picnic. What a place! It’s got its own shops, banks, post office, power plant, a laundry big enough to contract out to hotels, workshops, warehouses-you name it, Royal Queens has got it. Talk about a maze! It took me fifteen minutes at a fast clip to walk from the main gates to X-ray through just about every sort of architecture Sydney has produced for the last hundred or so years. Quadrangles, ramps, verandahs lined with pillars, sandstone buildings, red brick buildings, lots of those ghastly new buildings with glass on their outsides-stinking hot to work in!
Judging by the number of people I passed, there must be ten thousand employees. The nurses are wrapped up in so many layers of starch that they look like green-andwhite parcels. The poor things have to wear thick brown cotton stockings and flat-heeled brown lace-up shoes! Even Marilyn Monroe would have trouble looking seductive in opaque stockings and lace-up flatties.
Their caps look like two white doves entwined, and they have celluloid cuffs and collars, hems mid-calf. The registered nursing sisters look the same, except that they don’t have aprons, flaunt Egyptian headdress veils instead of caps, and wear nylons-their lace-up shoes have two-inch block heels.
Well, I’ve always known that I don’t have the temperament to take all that regimented, mindless discipline, any more than I have to put up with being maltreated by male Uni students protecting masculine turf. Us technicians just have to wear a white buttondown-the-front uniform (hems below the knee), with nylons and moccasin flatties.
There must be a hundred physios-I hate physios! I mean, what are physios except glorified masseuses? But boy, are they up themselves! They even starch their uniforms voluntarily! And they all have that gung-ho, jolly-hockey-stickbrigade air of superiority as they nip around smartly like army officers, baring their horsey teeth as they say things like “Jolly D!” and “Oh, supah!”
It’s lucky I left home early enough to make that fifteenminute walk yet still arrive at Sister Toppingham’s office on time. What a tartar! Pappy says that everyone calls her Sister Agatha, so I will too-behind her back. She’s about a thousand years old and was once a nursing sister-still wears the starched Egyptian headdress veil of a trained nurse. She’s the same shape as a pear, right down to the pear-shaped accent. Fraightfullehfraightfulleh. Her eyes are pale blue, cold as a frosty morning, and they looked through me as if I was a smear on the window.
“You will commence, Miss Purcell, in Chests. Nice, easy lungs at first, don’t you know? I prefer that all new staff serve an orientation period doing something simple. Later on we shall see what you can really do, yes? Jolly good, jolly good!”
Wacko, what a challenge! Chests. Shove ‘em against the upright bucky and get ‘em to hold their breath. When Sister Agatha said Chests, she meant OPD
chests-the walking wounded, not the serious stuff.
There are three of us doing routine chests, me and two junior trainees. But the darkrooms are in furious demand-we have to hustle our cassettes through at maximum speed, which means anyone who takes longer than nine minutes gets yelled at.
This is a department of women, which amazes me. Very rare! X-ray technicians are paid the male award, so men flock to X-ray as a profession-at Ryde, almost all of us were men. I imagine the difference at Queens is Sister Agatha, therefore she can’t be all bad.
I met the nurses’ aide in the dreary area where our lockers and the toilets live. I liked her at first glance, a lot more than any of the technicians I met today. My two trainees are nice kids, but both first-years, so a bit boring.
Whereas Nurse-aide Papele Sutama is interesting. The name is outlandish-but then, so is its owner. Her eyes do have upper lids, but there’s definitely a lot of Chinese there, I thought when I saw her. Not Japanese, her legs are too shapely and straight. She confirmed the Chinese later on. Oh, just the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen! A mouth like a rosebud, cheekbones to die for, feathery eyebrows. She’s known as Pappy, and it suits her. A tiny little thing, about five feet tall, and very thin without looking as if she’s out of Belsen like those anorexia nervosa cases Psych sends me for routine chests-why on earth do teenage girls starve themselves? Back to Pappy, whose skin is like ivory silk.