Authors: Colleen McCullough
Pappy liked me too, so when she found out that I’d brought a cut lunch from home, she invited me to eat it
with her on the grass outside the mortuary, which isn’t very far from X-ray, but Sister Agatha can’t see you from X-ray as she patrols. Sister Agatha doesn’t eat lunch, she’s too busy policing her empire. Of course we don’t get the full hour, especially on Mondays, when all the routine stuff from the weekend has to be squeezed in as well as the normal intake. However, Pappy and I managed to find out a great deal about each other in just thirty minutes.
The first thing she told me was that she lives at Kings Cross. Phew! It’s the one part of Sydney that Dad put out of bounds-a den of iniquity, Granny calls it. Riddled with vice. I’m not sure exactly what vice is, apart from alcoholism and prostitution. There are a lot of both at Kings Cross, judging by what the Reverend Alan Walker has to say. Still, he’s a Metho-very righteous.
Kings Cross is where Rosaleen Norton the witch lives-she’s always in the news for painting obscene pictures. What is an obscene picture-people copulating? I asked Pappy, but all she said was that obscenity is in the eye of the beholder.
Pappy’s very deep, reads Schopenhauer, Jung, Bertrand Russell and people like that, but she told me that she doesn’t have a high opinion of Freud. I asked her why she wasn’t up at Sydney Uni, and she said she’d never had much formal schooling. Her mother was an Australian, her father Chinese from Singapore, and they got caught up in World War Two. Her father died, her mother went mad after four years in Changi prison camp-what tragic lives some people have! And here am I with nothing to complain about except David and Potty. Bronte born and bred.
Pappy says that David is a mass of repressions, which she blames on his Catholic upbringing-she even has a name for the Davids of this world”constipated Catholic schoolboys”. But I didn’t want to talk about him, I wanted to know what living at Kings Cross is like. Like any other place, she says. But I don’t believe that, it’s too notorious. I’m dying of curiosity!
Wednesday, January 6th, 1960 It’s David again. Why can’t he get it through his head that someone who works in a hospital does not want to see some turgid monstrosity of a Continental film? It’s all very well for him, up there in his sterile, autoclaved little world where the most exciting thing that ever happens is a bloody mouse growing a bloody lump, but I work in one of those places where people suffer pain and sometimes even die! I am surrounded by gruesome reality-I cry enough, I’m depressed enough! So when I go to the pictures I want to laugh, or at least have a good old sniffle when Deborah Kerr gives up the love of her life because she’s in a wheelchair. Whereas the sort of films David likes are so depressing. Not sad, just depressing.
I tried to tell him the above when he said he was taking me to see the new film at the Savoy Theatre. The word I used wasn’t depressing, it was sordid.
“Great literature and great films are not sordid,” he said.
I offered to let him harrow his soul in peace at the Savoy while I went to the Prince Edward to see a Western, but he gets this look on his face which long experience has taught me precedes a lecture that’s sort of a cross between a sermon and a harangue, so I gave in and went with him to the Savoy to see Gervaise-Zola, David explained as we came out. I felt like a wrung-out dishrag, which isn’t a bad comparison, actually. It all took place in a Victorian version of a giant laundry. The heroine was so young and pretty, but there wasn’t a man worth looking at within cooee-they were fat and bald. I think David might end up bald, his hair isn’t as thick as it was when I met him.
David insisted on taking a taxi home, though I would far rather have walked briskly down to the Quay and grabbed the bus. He always lets the taxi go outside our place, then escorts me in up the side passage, where, in the dark, he puts a hand on either side of my waist and squishes my lip with three kisses so chaste that the Pope wouldn’t think it sinful to bestow them. After which he watches to see I’m safely in the back door, then walks the four blocks to his own house. He lives with his widowed mother, though he’s bought a roomy bungalow at Coogee Beach which he rents out to a family of New Australians from Holland-very clean, the Dutch, he told me. Oh, is there any blood in David’s veins? Never once has he put a finger, let alone a hand, on my breasts. What do I have them for?
My big Bros were inside, making a cup of tea and killing themselves laughing at what had gone on in the side passage.
Tonight’s wish: That I manage to save fifteen quid a week at this new job and save enough by the beginning of 1961 to take that two-year working holiday to England. Then I’ll lose David, who can’t possibly leave his bloody mice in case one grows a bloody lump.
Thursday, January 7th, 1960 My curiosity about Kings Cross is going to be gratified on Saturday, when I am to have dinner at Pappy’s place. However, I shan’t tell Mum and Dad exactly whereabouts Pappy lives. I’ll just say it’s on the fringe of Paddington. Tonight’s wish: That Kings Cross isn’t a let-down.
Last night we had a bit of a crisis with Willie. It’s typical of Mum that she insisted on rescuing this baby cockatoo
off the Mudgee road and rearing it. Willie was so scrawny and miserable that Mum started him off on a dropper of warm milk laced with the threestar hospital brandy we keep for Granny’s funny little turns. Then, because his beak wasn’t hard enough yet to crack seed, she switched to porridge laced with threestar hospital brandy. So Willie grew up into this gorgeous, fat white bird with a yellow comb and a daggy breast caked with dried porridge. Mum has always given him his porridgeand-brandy in the last of the Bunnyware saucers I had when I was a toddler. But yesterday she broke the Bunnyware saucer, so she put his dinner in a bilious green saucer instead. Willie took one look, flipped his uneaten dinner upside down and went bonkersscreeched high C
without letting up until every dog in Bronte was howling and Dad had a visit from the Boys in Blue, who arrived in a paddy wagon.
I daresay it’s all those years of reading whodunits sharpened my deductive powers, because, after a hideous night of a screeching parrot and a thousand howling dogs, I realised two facts. One, that parrots are intelligent enough to discern a saucer with cute little bunnies running around its rim from a saucer of bilious green. Two, that Willie is an alcoholic. When he saw the wrong saucer, he concluded that his porridge-andbrandy had been withdrawn, and went into withdrawal himself-hence the racket.
Peace was finally restored to Bronte when I got home from work this afternoon. I’d grabbed a taxi at
lunchtime and dashed into the city to buy a new Bunnyware saucer. Had to buy the cup as well-two pounds ten! But Gavin and Peter are good scouts, even if they are my big brothers. They each donated a third of the two-and-a-half quid, so I’m not much out of pocket. Silly, isn’t it? But Mum so loves that dippy bird.
Kings Cross is certainly not a let-down. I got off the bus at the stop before Taylor Square and walked the rest of the way with Pappy’s directions memorised. Apparently they don’t eat very early at Kings Cross, because I didn’t have to be there until eight, so by the time I got off the bus it was quite dark. Then as I passed Vinnie’s Hospital it began to rain-just a drizzle, nothing that my frilly pink brolly couldn’t handle. When I reached that huge intersection I believe is the actual Kings Cross, seeing it on foot with the streets wet and the dazzle of all those neons and car lights rippling across the water was completely different from whizzing through it in a taxi. It’s beautiful.
I don’t know how the shopkeepers avoid the Sydney Blue Laws, because they were still open on a Saturday evening! Though it was a bit disappointing when I realised that my route didn’t lie along the Darlinghurst Road shops-I had to walk down Victoria Street, in which The House is situated. That’s what Pappy calls it, “The House”, and I know she says it with capital letters. As if it is an institution. So I admit that I hiked past the terraced houses of Victoria Street eagerly.
I love the rows upon rows of old Victorian terraced houses inner Sydney has-not kept up these days, alas. All the lovely cast-iron lace has been ripped off and replaced by sheets of fibro to turn the balconies into extra rooms, and the plastered walls are dingy. Even so, they’re very mysterious. The windows are blanked out by Manchester lace curtains and brown-paper blinds, like closed eyes. They’ve seen so much. Our house at Bronte is only twentytwo years old; Dad built it after the worst of the Depression, when his shop started making money. So nothing’s happened in it except us, and we are boring. Our biggest crisis is Willie’s saucerat least, that’s the only time the police have called on us.
The House was a long way down Victoria Street, and as I walked I noticed that at this far end some of the terraced houses still had their cast-iron lace, were painted and well kept-up. Right at the end beyond Challis Avenue the street widened into a semicircular dead end. Apparently the Council had run out of tar, because the road was cobbled with little wooden blocks, and I noticed that within the semicircle no cars were parked. This gave the crescent of five terraced houses which filled it an air of not belonging to the present.
They were all numbered 17-17a, b, c, d and e. The one in the middle, 17c, was The House. It had a fabulous front door of ruby glass etched in a pattern of lilies
down to the clear glass underneath, the bevels glittering amber and purple from the light inside. It wasn’t locked, so I pushed it open.
But the fairytale door led into a desert waste. A dingy hall painted dirty cream, a red cedar staircase leading upward, a couple of fly-dirt-speckled naked lightbulbs on long, twisted brown cords, awful old brown linoleum pitted from stiletto heels. From the skirting boards to a height of about four feet, every single bit of wall I could see was smothered in scribbles, aimless loops and whorls of many colours with the waxy look of crayon.
“Hello!” I yelled.
Pappy appeared from beyond the staircase, smiling a welcome. I think I stared quite rudely, she looked so different. Instead of that unflattering bright mauve uniform and hair-hiding cap, she wore a skin-tight tube of peacock blue satin embroidered in dragons, and it was split so far up her left leg that I could see the top of her stocking and a frilly lace suspender. Her hair cascaded down her back in a thick, straight, shining mass-why can’t I have hair like that? Mine is just as black, but it’s so curly that if I grew it long it’d stick out like a broom in an epileptic fit. So I hack mine really short with a pair of scissors.
She led me through a door at the end of the passage beside the stairs and we emerged into another, much shorter hall which went sideways and seemed to end in the open air. It held only the one door, which Pappy opened.
Inside was Dreamland. The room was so chocka with books that the walls were invisible, just books, books, books, floor up to ceiling, and there were stacks of books lying around that I suspect she’d cleared off her chairs and table in order to entertain me. During the course of the evening I tried to count them, but there were too many. Her collection of lamps knocked me sideways, they were so gorgeous. Two dragonfly stainedglass ones, an illuminated globe of the world on a stand, kerosene lamps from Indonesia converted to electricity, one that looked like a white chimney six feet tall, overlaid with slashed purple swellings. The ceiling bulb was inside a Chinese paper lantern dripping silk tassels.
Then she proceeded to cook food that bore no relationship to the chowmeow from Hoo Flung’s up Bronte Road. My tongue smarting gently from ginger and garlic, I shovelled in three helpings. There is nothing wrong with my appetite, though I never manage to keep enough weight on to graduate from a B to a C cup bra. Darn. Jane Russell is a full D cup, but I’ve always thought that Jayne Mansfield is only a B cup on top of a huge rib cage.
When we’d finished and drunk a pot of fragrant green tea, Pappy announced that it was time to go upstairs and meet Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz. The landlady.
When I remarked that it was a peculiar name, Pappy grinned.
She led me back to the front hall and the red cedar staircase. As I followed her up, consumed with curiosity, I
noticed that the crayon scribbles didn’t stop. Rather, they increased. The stairs continued upward to a higher floor, but we went forward to a huge room at the front of the house, and Pappy pushed me inside. If you want to find a room that is the exact opposite of Pappy’s, this one is it. Bare. Except for the scribbles, which were so thick that there wasn’t a scrap of space for more. Maybe because of that, one section had been roughly painted over, apparently to provide the artist with a fresh canvas, as a few scribbles already adorned it. The place could have held six lounge suites and a dining table to seat twelve, but it was mostly empty. There was a rusty chrome kitchen table with a red laminex top, four rusty chairs with the padding of their red plastic seats oozing out like pus from a carbuncle, a velvet couch suffering from a bad attack of alopecia, and an uptothe-minute refrigerator/freezer. A pair of glass-panelled doors led out onto the balcony.
“Out here, Pappy!” someone called.
We emerged onto the balcony to find two women standing there. The one I saw first was clearly from the Harbourside Eastern Suburbs or the upper North Shore-blue-rinsed hair, a dress that came from Paris, matching shoes, bag and gloves in burgundy kid, and a weeny hat much smarter than the ones Queen Elizabeth wears. Then Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz stepped forward, and I forgot all about the middle-aged fashion plate.
Phew! What a mountain of a woman! Not that she was fat, more that she was gigantic. A good six foot four in those dirty old slippers with their backs trodden down, and massively muscled. No stockings. A faded, unironed old buttondown-the-front house dress with a pocket on either hip. Her face was round, lined, snubnosed and absolutely dominated by her eyes, which looked straight into my soul, pale blue with dark rings around the irises, little pupils as sharp as twin needles. She had thin grey hair cut as short as a man’s, and eyebrows that hardly showed against her skin. Age? On the wrong side of fifty by several years, I reckon.