Authors: Colleen McCullough
“Ah, shit, here comes Harold.” Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz sighed, getting up to retrieve the unbroken glass. Still shaken by Flo’s frenzy, I followed her from the balcony to the living room.
In he came, daintily, something like a seized-up old ballet dancer. Every step measured, pricked out on some paper pattern of movements. He was a faded, shrunken little chap in his late fifties, and he peered at us over the top of a pair of half-glasses perched on his thin, sharp nose. With utter malevolence. But I inherited the full focus of that terrible gaze, not Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz. I don’t quite know how to describe something I’ve never encountered before, even from a demented patient with homicidal tendencies. He glared at me with such hate, such venom! And I suddenly remembered that Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz had said I too was a Queen of Swords. It crossed my mind that maybe it was my death she was looking at in the cards. Or Pappy’s. Or Jim’s.
She didn’t seem to notice that anything was wrong, booming out, “This is Harold Warner, Harriet. He’s me live-in lover.”
I bleated something polite which he answered with a frosty nod of his head, then he turned it away as if he couldn’t bear to look at me a moment longer. If I weren’t a healthy five foot ten, I swear I would have joined Flo under the couch. Poor little thing! Harold obviously affected her the way he affected me.
“He’s me live-in lover.” So that was why everybody wanted to know whether I’d met Harold!
The pair of them left the room, he preceding her, she in his wake like a sheepdog rounding up a stray lamb. Presumably they went off to her bedroom.
Or perhaps to Harold’s quarters, right above my living room. When I realised that they weren’t coming back I lay flat out on the floor, lifted the tatty edge of the couch skirt and stared at a huge pair of eyes glowing in the gloom like the glass bobbles buried in a road. It took some time to coax Flo out, but in the end she skittled across the lino like a crab and kept on going until she hung by her arms around my neck. I got her weight distributed on my hip and looked at her.
“Well, angel puss,” I said, stroking her flyaway hair, “how about we go down to my flat and sort out your crayons?”
So she and I picked all of them up off the floor-there must have been over a hundred, and they weren’t cheap children’s crayons, they were German artist’s quality in every hue. Flo could have worn a pretty new dress every day for a week on what they must have cost her mother.
I’ve learned a great deal about Flo this afternoon. That she doesn’t speak, at least in my presence, but that her mind is clear, alert, intelligent. We pleated cardboard into grooved trays, then I asked her to pick out all the green crayons, which she did. Then I told her to arrange them in gradations of colour in a tray, and watched her deciding whether a greeny-yellow one belonged with the greens. We sorted out the reds, the pinks, the yellows, the blues, the browns, the greys, the purples and
oranges, and she was never wrong. It wasn’t difficult to tell that she was enjoying herself very much, because after a while she began to hum a shutmouthed tune, a pretty melody unshaped by lips or tongue. Not once did she try to scribble on my walls, though I had wondered. We sat down on two chairs and ate potato salad and coleslaw and shaved ham, we drank lemonade, then we lay down together on my bed and had a nap. Whenever I moved about, she hung onto my leg and moved with me. I have never been as happy as I was this afternoon, being with Flo, getting the feel of her world. While her mother, that astonishing mass of contradictions, cavorted upstairs on a bed with a very sick man. What did Flo do on other Sunday afternoons? For this tryst with Harold was a weekly event; Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz had indicated that. The Ten of Swords, the Queen of the same suit, the death.
I returned Flo when I heard her mother bellowing for her angel puss. The wee child trotted along with her hand in mine, greeted her mother with no visible sign of resentment at being abandoned for two hours. I left them, my mind whirling, my heart aching. As I shut their door I glanced along the lightless hall which ran toward the back, feeling a prickle of terrible fear. And there was Harold standing in the dark, giving nothing of his presence away. I had a fancy that he had managed to fuse himself into the wall, scribbles on his bottom half, dingy cream on his top half. Our eyes met and my mouth went bone-dry. The hate! It was palpable. I couldn’t get down the stairs fast enough, though only his eyes had acknowledged me.
And now, even though it’s high time I was in bed, I’m sitting here at my table studded with goose pimples. What have I done to that awful little man to earn such hatred? And who is the relevant Queen of Swords? Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz, Pappy, Jim or me?
Wednesday, March 2nd, 1960 The best thing about using an ordinary exercise book as a diary is that you don’t have blank pages reproaching you because you haven’t entered it faithfully. All I do is write in the date and start my entry right after the one before, even if it was a fortnight ago. I’m onto my second fat book already. Though my door has a mortice lock, I can pick it myself when I forget my key, so anybody with a smidgin of resource can do the same. Therefore I am hiding my finished exercise book(s) in the back of the cupboard where I keep my hunk of Tilsiter cheese. My theory is that no one, even Harold, could summon up the strength to stick his or her head inside that cupboard to hunt for anything. The pong is unbelievable! I manage to confine the stench to the interior of the cupboard by wadding up the door with plasticine, and the door bears a warning underneath a radioactive symbol and a skulland-crossbones: BEWARE OF THE CHEESE! This achieves two
purposes. One, unpicking the plasticine is laborious, so I don’t eat Tilsiter more than once a week-once I start eating it, I can’t stop. Two, my finished exercise book(s) will be safe. I make sure by embedding a hair in the plasticine, a ruse I saw in a whodunit film. The exercise book in current use goes everywhere with me, be it to Queens or the shops. One cannot be too careful with anything that contains secrets.
An odd thing happened at work today. There was a big flap on in Cas-a twenty-seater plane crashed on the Mascot runway, so half went to St. George and the other half came here, the living and the dead. I hate burns. Everybody does. Six of the passengers and the two pilots went straight through Cas to the morgue, but two of the passengers were still alive when I left. Oh, the stench!
Like charred roast meat, and impossible to get rid of, which meant that the other Cas patients became restive and afraid, the nurses were scared as nurses rarely are, and the sisters couldn’t be in enough places at one and the same time.
Chris was off at a meeting Sister Agatha had called, and the junior was tidying up the darkroom while I mended sandbags-we weren’t busy for a change. And in walked Mr. Duncan Forsythe! I was sitting at our lone desk in the patient waiting area plying my needle, didn’t look up for a moment. When I did, my mouth fell open. Such a smile he was giving me! He really is a very goodlooking man. I managed a polite grimace and got to my feet with my hands behind my back like an obedient
inferior in the presence of God. Chin and tummy tucked in, feet at attention.
After a couple of years of hospital work, it comes naturally.
All he wanted was the phone-the ones in Cas were running hot because of the crash, he explained. I indicated ours and stood, still at attention, while he told Switch to page his team of underlings to meet him in Chichester Four.
After he replaced the receiver I expected him to depart, but he didn’t. Instead, he sat on one corner of the desk swinging one leg and staring at me. Then he asked me my name, and when I told him, he repeated it.
“Harriet Purcell. It has a nice, old-fashioned sound.” “Yes, sir,” I answered, stiff as a post.
Green eyes are mysterious. In romantic novels they’re always the colour of emeralds, but in my experience they’re more of a swampy green, changeful. My eyes are black, you can’t easily tell the pupil from the iris, which I daresay is why I like his eyes so much-different from mine, but not opposite. He continued to sit looking at me, quietly smiling, for long enough to make me feel the skin of my face heat up, then he slid off the desk and wandered to the door in that wonderfully absent way surgeons do, as if external forces propel them from place to place.
“Goodbye, Harriet,” he said as he went out.
Phew! He must be six-three, because I have to look up. Oh, what a lovely man! But Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz is not going to trap me with those wretched cards!
And then tonight I had my first cooking lesson. Klaus had all the ingredients ready when I knocked on his door a bit after eight; I’d heard the sound of his violin and knew that meant he wouldn’t mind if I was early. He plays like a virtuoso, classical stuff full of yearning. I’m not up on classical stuff, but if what Klaus plays is anything to go by, I’m going to buy whatever LPs he cares to suggest. It leaves Billy Vaughan for dead.
We made Beef Stroganoff with spaetzle (I asked Klaus to spell it-just as well, because it isn’t in my Oxford), and I think I’ve died and gone to heaven. He showed me how to slice the half-frozen beef fillet very thinly, how to slice the mushrooms and the onions, gave me a lecture about keeping my knives sharp with a steel. The spaetzle have the same composition as Granny’s dumplings, only he forces the dough through a colander into boiling salted water and cuts it off regularly to make what look like short, thick macaronis.
“Fry the meat lightly and quickly, put it in your pot, fry the onions golden, add them to your pot, fry the mushrooms until they’re soft, add them to your pot. Heat the frying pan until the drippings are brown, then add a dash of cognac.”
When he put the cognac in (he sneers at the old threestar), it hissed and bubbled, evaporated. “Put some fresh cream in the pan before you start with the sour cream, Harriet. If you do not, your sauce will curdle as it nears its boiling point. I for one prefer my food piping hot, so I use fresh cream first to stop the sour cream curdling. Squash
the sour cream into bits, then use a French whisk to stir as you heat-it takes all the lumps out. Then pour your sauce into the pot, mix it all up, and voila! Beef Stroganoff.”
The whole meal took less than half an hour to prepare, and I have never tasted anything that good. “Do not put tomato paste or pickles in it,” he scolded, as if I was going to dash off and commit these crimes immediately.
“The way I make Stroganoff is the right way, the only way.” He thought for a minute, then said, “Except for the cognac, but cognac is excusable. Keep your flavours simple and make sure that what you use in a sauce does not camouflage the main ingredients. With fillet of beef, mushrooms and onions, who needs disguising flavours?”
End of lesson. Next week we’re going to make Chicken Paprika-on sweet Hungarian paprika! We had a bit of a squabble about who was going to pay for the raw materials-he insisted, I wouldn’t let him. In the end we agreed to split the cost down the middle.
Next Saturday I’m going looking for knives, a steel and a French whisk. And I can’t wait to tell Mum how to make lump-free gravy! Stir it with a French whisk.
I refuse to believe those cards!
Today we had a head injury day. I don’t know why things fall out like that, they just do. On any one day we
tend to get more of a certain kind of patient than others. And today it was heads, heads, heads.
Chris was still there when Demetrios the New Australian Cas porter wheeled the umpteenth head injury through the door on a trolley. Demetrios is Greek, and has organised an interpreter service to cope with all the nationalities we get in these days of New Australians galore. I like the N.A.s very much and I think they’re good for the country-less steak-and-chips, more Beef Stroganoff. But my family loathes them, and so does Miss Christine Hamilton. A pity, because Demetrios thinks Chris is a bit of all right. He’s single, quite tall and not badlooking in a slightly alien way, and he told me that portering is only temporary.
He’s going to Tech at night to learn car mechanics because he wants to own his own garage one day. Like all N.A.s, he works very hard and he saves every penny. I think that’s why most Old Australians loathe the N.A.s. N.A.s think of a job as a privilege, not a right. They’re so happy to be somewhere that their tummies are full and their bank books have a bit in them.
Anyway, after casting Chris a languishing look and getting a glare in return, Demetrios pushed off and left us with the patient. Said patient was turpsed to the eyeballs, stank of beer, wouldn’t keep still, refused to co-operate. Then when I bent over him to shove a sandbag on either side of his neck, he puked beery vomit all over me. Oh, what a mess! I had to leave Chris cursing and the junior wiping up the floor, get myself to the Cas women’s staff room and take off my uniform, shoes, stockings,
suspender belt, bra, panties, the lot. I had another uniform in my locker, but no underwear and no spare pair of shoes, so I had to wash them in the sink, wring them as dry as possible and put them back on, even my stockings. It is strictly forbidden to have bare legs. My beloved old shoes will never be the same again, a tragedy. For three years they’ve pampered my feet, now I’ll have to buy a new pair and break them in-hell when you’re permanently on your feet. As you can’t wring out shoes, I put them on soaking wet and squelched back to Cas Xray leaving a set of wet footsteps behind me. Matron was visiting, eyed me up and down.
“Miss Purcell, you are wetting the floor, and that is very dangerous for other people,” she said icily.
“Yes, Matron. I am aware, Matron. I apologise, Matron,” I said, and bolted through our door. You don’t try to justify yourself to Matron or Sister Agatha, you just escape as fast as possible. But isn’t she amazing? She’s only met me once, but she knows who I am and what my name is.
It went on like that-one of “those days”. But I sent the junior off at four and battled on alone, so it was well after eight when I took the dirty laundry to the Cas chute and hunted someone up to put in a request for special treatment to our floor from the cleaning staff. Having entered the register and prepared tomorrow’s cassettes, I was free to go.