Authors: Colleen McCullough
As soon as she let my eyes go, my medical training clicked in. Acromegaly?
Cushing’s Syndrome? But she didn’t have the huge lower jaw or the jutting forehead of the acromegalic, nor did she have the physique or hairiness of a Cushing’s. Something pituitary or midbrain or hypothalamic, for sure, but what, I didn’t know.
The fashion plate nodded politely to Pappy and me, brushed past us and departed with Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz in her wake. Because I was standing in the doorway, I saw the visitor reach into her bag, withdraw a thick wad of brick-coloured notes-tenners!-and hand them over a few at a time. Pappy’s landlady just stood there with her hand out until she was satisfied with the number of notes. Then she folded them and slipped them into one pocket while the fashion plate from Sydney’s most expensive suburbs left the room.
Back came Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz to throw herself onto a mate of the four chairs inside, bidding us sit on two more with a sweep of a hand the size of a leg of lamb. “Siddown, princess, siddown!” she roared. “How the hell are youse, Miss Harriet Purcell? Good name, thattwo sets of seven lettersstrong magic! Spiritual awareness and good fortune, happiness through perfected labour-and I don’t mean them lefty politicians, hur-hurhur.”
The “hur-hur-hur” is a kind of wicked chuckle that speaks volumes; as if there is nothing in the world could surprise her, though everything in the world amuses her greatly. It reminded me of Sid James’s chuckle in the Carry On films.
I was so nervous that I picked up her comments about my name and regaled her with the history of the Harriet Purcells, told her the name went back many generations, but that, until my advent, its owners had all been quite cuckoo.
One Harriet Purcell, I said, had been jailed for castrating a would-be lover, and another for assaulting the Premier of New South Wales during a suffragette rally. She listened with interest, sighed in disappointment when I finished my tale by saying that my father’s generation had been so afraid of the name that it didn’t contain a Harriet Purcell.
“Yet your dad christened you Harriet,” she said. “Good man! Sounds like he might be fun to know, hurhur-hur.”
Ooooooaa! Hands off my dad, Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz! “He said he liked the name Harriet, and he wasn’t impressed by family claptrap,” I said. “I was a bit of an afterthought, you see, and everybody thought I’d be another boy.”
“But you wasn’t,” she said, grinning. “Oh, I like it!” During all of this, she drank undiluted, uniced threestar hospital brandy out of a Kraft cheese spread glass. Pappy and I were each given a glass of it, but one sip of Willie’s downfall made me abandon mine-dreadful stuff, raw and biting. I noticed that Pappy seemed to enjoy the taste, though she didn’t glug it nearly as fast as Mrs.
Delvecchio Schwartz did.
I’ve been sitting here debating whether I might save a lot of writer’s cramp by shortening that name to Mrs. D-S, but somehow I don’t have the courage. I don’t lack courage, but Mrs. D-S? No.
Then I became aware that someone else was on the balcony with us, had been there all along but stayed absolutely invisible. My skin began to prickle, I felt a delicious chill, like the first puff of a Southerly Buster after days and days of a century-mark heatwave. A face appeared above the table, peering from around Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz’s hip. The most bewitching little face, chin pointed, cheekbones high beneath the orbits, flawless beige skin, drifts of palest brown hair, black brows, black lashes so long they looked tangledoh, I wish I was a poet, to describe that divine child! My chest caved in, I just looked at her and loved her. Her eyes were enormous, wide apart and amber-brown, the saddest eyes I have ever seen. Her little pink rosebud mouth parted, and she smiled at me. I smiled back.
“Oh, decided to join the party, have youse?” The next moment the little thing was on Mrs. Delvecchio
Schwartz’s knee, still with her face turned to smile at me, but plucking at Mrs.
Delvecchio Schwartz’s dress with one tiny hand.
“This is me daughter, Flo,” said the landlady. “Thought I had the Change four years ago, then got a pain in the belly and went to the dunny thinkin’ I had a dose of the shits. And-bang! There was Flo, squirmin’ on the floor all covered with slime. Never even knew I was up the duff until she popped outlucky I didn’t drown youse in the dunny, ain’t that right, angel puss?” This last was said to Flo, who was fiddling with a button. “How old is she?” I asked.
“Just turned four. A Capricorn who ain’t a Capricorn,” said Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz, casually unbuttoning her dress. Out flopped a breast which looked like an old stocking with its toe stuffed with beans, and she stuck its huge, horny nipple in Flo’s mouth. Flo shut her eyes ecstatically, leaned back into her mother’s arm and began to suck away with long, horribly audible slurps. I sat there with my mouth catching flies, unable to think of a thing to say. The X-ray vision lifted to focus on me.
“Loves her mother’s milk, does Flo,” she said chattily. “I know she’s four, yeah, but what’s age got to do with it, princess? Best tucker of all, mother’s milk. Only thing is, her teeth are all in, so she hurts like hell.”
I went on sitting there with my mouth catching flies until Pappy said, quite suddenly, “Well, Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz, what do you think?”
“I think The House needs Miss Harriet Purcell,” said Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz with a nod and a wink. Then she looked at me and asked, “Ever think of movin’ outta home, princess? Like into a nice little flat of your own?”
My mouth shut with a snap, I shook my head. “I can’t afford it,” I answered.
“I’m saving to go to England on a two-year working holiday, you see.”
“Do youse pay board at home?” she asked. I said I paid five pounds a week.
“Well, I got a real nice little flat out in the backyard, two big rooms, four quid a week, electricity included. There’s a bath and dunny inside the laundry that only you and Pappy’d use. Janice Harvey, me tenant, is movin’ out. It’s got a double bed,” she added with a leer. “Hate them piddly-arse little single beds.”
Four pounds! Two rooms for four pounds? A Sydney miracle!
“You stand a better chance of getting rid of David living here than at home,”
said Pappy persuasively. She shrugged. “After all, you’re on a male award, you could still save for your trip.”
I remember swallowing, hunting desperately for a polite way to say no, but suddenly I was saying yes! I don’t know where that yes came from-1 certainly wasn’t thinking yes.
“Ripperace, princess!” boomed Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz, flipped the nipple out of Flo’s mouth and lumbered to her feet.
As my eyes met Flo’s, I knew why I’d said yes. Flo put 24
the word into my mind. Flo wanted me here, and I was putty. She came over to me and hugged my legs, smiling up at me with milky lips.
“Will youse look at that?” Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz exclaimed, grinning at Pappy. “Be honoured, Harriet. Flo don’t usually take to people, do you, angel puss?”
So here I am, trying to write it all down before the edges blur, wondering how on earth I’m going to break it to my family that, very shortly, I am moving into two big rooms at Kings Cross, home to alcoholics, prostitutes, homosexuals, satanic artists, glue-sniffers, hashishsmokers and God knows what else. Except that what I saw of it in the rainy dark I liked, and that Flo wants me in The House.
I’d said to Pappy that perhaps I could say that The House was in Potts Point, not Kings Cross, but Pappy only laughed.
“Potts Point is a euphemism, Harriet,” she said. “The Royal Australian Navy owns Potts Point whole and entire.”
Tonight’s wish: That the parents don’t have a stroke.
I haven’t told them yet. Still getting up the courage. When I went to bed last night-Granny was snoring a treat-I was sure that when I woke up this morning, I
would change my mind. But I haven’t. The first thing I saw was Granny squatting over Potty, and the iron entered my soul. That’s such a good phrase! I never realised until I started writing this that I seem to have picked up all sorts of good phrases from reading. They don’t surface in conversation, but they certainly do on paper. And though this is only a few days old, I’m already well into a fat exercise book, and I’m quite addicted. Maybe that’s because I can never sit still and think, I always have to be doing something, so now I’m killing two birds with the same stone. I get to think about what’s happening to me, yet I’m doing something at the same time. There’s a discipline about writing the stuff down, I see it better. Just like my work. I give it all my attention because I enjoy it.
I haven’t quite made up my mind about Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz, though I do like her very much. She reminds me of some of my more memorable patients, those who manage to stay with me for as long as I’ve been doing Xrays, maybe are going to stay with me for the rest of my life. Like the dear old bloke from Lidcombe State Hospital who kept neatly pleating his blanket. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was folding sail, and then, when I settled to talk to him, he told me he’d been bosun on a windjammer, one of the wheat clippers used to scud home to England loaded to the gunwales with grain.
His words, not mine. I learned a lot, then realised that very shortly he was going to die, and all those experiences would die with him because he’d never written them down.
Well, Kings Cross is not a windjammer, and I’m no sailor, but if I write it all down, someone sometime in remote posterity might read it, and they’d know what sort of life I lived. Because I have a funny feeling that it isn’t going to be the boring old suburban life I was facing last New Year’s Day. I feel like a snake shedding its skin.
Tonight’s wish: That the parents don’t have a stroke.
I still haven’t told them, but it’s going to happen tomorrow night. When I asked Mum if David could eat steak-and-chips with us, she said of course; best, I think, to wallop the whole lot of them at the same time. That way, maybe David will get used to the idea before he has enough time alone with me to nag and hector me out of it. How I dread his lectures! But Pappy is right, it is going to be easier to get rid of David if I don’t live at home. That thought alone has kept my course steering for the Cross, as the natives call it. Up at the Cross, to be exact.
I saw a man today at work, on the ramp leading from X-ray to Chichester House, which is the posh red brick building housing the Private Patients in the lap of luxury. A room and a bathroom each, no less, instead of a bed in a row of about twenty down either side of a whacking great ward. Must be awfully nice not to have to lie
listening to half the patients vomiting, spitting, hacking or raving. Though there’s no doubt that listening to half the patients vomiting, spitting, hacking or raving is a terrific incentive to get better and get out, or else get the dying over and done with.
The man. Sister Agatha grabbed me as I finished hanging some films in the drying cabinet-so far I haven’t had one ponk film, which awes my two juniors into abject submission.
“Miss Purcell, kindly run these to Chichester Three for Mr. NasebyMorton,” she said, waving an X-ray envelope at me.
Sensing her displeasure, I took it and hared off. Pappy would have been first on her invitation list, which meant Sister Agatha hadn’t been able to find her.
Or else she was holding a vomit bowl or dealing with a bedpan, of course.
Mine not to reason why-I hared off like the juniorest junior to the Private Hospital. Very swanky, Chichester House! The rubber floors have such a shine on them that I could see Sister Chichester Three’s pink bloomers reflected there, and you could open a florist shop on the amount of flowers dotted around the corridors on expensive pedestals. It was so quiet that when I bounded off the top step at Chichester Three level, six different people glared at me and put fingers to lips. Ssssssh! Ooooooaa! So I looked contrite, handed the films over and tiptoed away like Margot Fonteyn.
Halfway down the ramp I saw a group of doctors approaching-an Honorary Medical Officer and his
court of underlings. You don’t spend a day working in any hospital without becoming aware that the H.M.O. is God, but God at Royal Queens is a much superior God to God at Ryde Hospital. Here, they wear navy pinstriped or grey flannel suits, Old School ties, Frenchcuffed shirts with discreet but solid gold links, brown suede or black kid thin-soled shoes.
This specimen wore grey flannel and brown suede shoes. With him were two registrars (long white coats), his senior and junior residents (white suits and white shoes), and six medical students (short white coats) with stethoscopes ostentatiously displayed and nail-bitten hands full of slide cases or test tube racks. Yes, a very senior version of God, to have so many dancing attendance on him. That was what caught my attention. Doing routine chests doesn’t bring one into contact with God, senior or junior, so I was curious. He was talking with great animation to one registrar, fine head thrown back, and I think I had to slow down and shut my mouth, which does have a tendency to catch flies these days. Oh, what a lovely man! Very tall, a good pair of shoulders, a flat tummy. A lot of dark red hair with a kink in it and two snowwhite wings, very slightly freckled skin, chiselled features-yes, he was a lovely man. They were talking about osteomalacia, so I catalogued him as an orthopod. Then as I slid by themthey did rather take up all the ramp-I found myself being searchingly regarded by a pair of greenish eyes. Phew! My chest caved in for the second time in a week,
though this wasn’t a surge of love like Flo’s. This was a sort of breathless attraction. My knees sagged.
At lunch I quizzed Pappy about him, armed with my theory that he was an orthopod.
“Duncan Forsythe,” she said without hesitation. “He’s the senior Honorary Medical Officer on Orthopaedics. Why do you ask?”
“He gave me an old-fashioned look,” I said.
Pappy stared. “Did he? That’s odd coming from him, he’s not one of the Queens Lotharios. He’s very much married and known as the nicest H.M.O. in the whole place-a thorough gentleman, never chucks instruments at Sister Theatre or tells filthy jokes or picks on his junior resident, no matter how hamfisted or tactless.”