Authors: Colleen McCullough
“This is utterly wrong!” he said in a wobbly voice. “So many years! Let’s kiss and make up, please.”
That did it. I doubled my right hand into a fist and whacked him a beauty on the left eye. As he staggeredI do pack a punch, the Bros made sure of that-I saw a newcomer over his shoulder, and gave David a shove off the step down onto the path. I looked, I hoped for the benefit of the newcomer, like a particularly dangerous Amazon. Caught in a ridiculous situation by a stranger, David scuttled out the front gate and bolted down Victoria Street as if the Hound of the Baskervilles was after him.
Which left the newcomer and I to look each other over. Even given the fact that I was on the step and he on the path below it, I picked him as barely five foot six. Nuggety, though, standing lightly balanced on his toes like a boxer, his reddish-brown eyes gleaming at me wickedly. Nice straight nose, good cheekbones, a mop of auburn curls trimmed into discipline, straight black brows and thick black lashes. Very attractive!
“Are you coming in, or are you just going to stand there and decorate the path?” I asked coldly.
“I’m coming in,” he said, but made no move to do so. He was too busy looking at me. A peculiar look, now that the wickedness was dying out of his eyes-detached, fascinated in an unemotional way. For all the world like a physician assessing a patient, though if he was a physician, I’d eat David’s Akubra town hat. “Are you double-jointed?” he asked.
I said no.
“That’s a pity. I could have put you in some grouse poses. There’s not much meat on you and what there is looks sporty, but you’ve got very seductive breasts. They belong to your body rather than a bra manufacturer.” He hopped up the step as he said this, then waited for me to precede him inside.
“You have to be the artist in the garret,” I said.
“Dead on the knocker. Toby Evans. And you must be the new girl in the back ground floor flat.”
“Dead on the knocker. Harriet Purcell.”
“Come upstairs and have a coffee, you must need one after the wallop you gave that poor silly coot outside. He’s going to have a shiner for a month,” he said.
I followed him up two flights of stairs to a landing which had a huge female symbol on one of its doors (Jim and Sob, undoubtedly) and an alpine view on the other (Klaus Muller, undoubtedly). Access to the garret was up a sturdy ladder. Toby went first, and as soon as I’d climbed onto firm ground he pulled a rope which plucked the ladder off the floor below, folded it against the ceiling.
“Oh, that’s terrific,” I said, staring about in amazement. “You can pull up the drawbridge and withstand a siege.”
I was in an enormous dormered room with two alcoved windows at its back and two more at its front, where the ceiling sloped. The whole place was painted stark white and looked as sterile as an operating theatre.
Not a pin out of place, not a smear or a stain, not a speck of dust or even the outline of a dried-up raindrop on the window panes. Because it was an attic, the windows had seats with white corduroy cushions on them. The paintings were turned with their faces to the wall in a white-painted rack and there was a big professional easel (painted white), a dais with a white chair on it and a little white chest of drawers beside the easel. That was the business area. For leisure he had two easy chairs covered in white corduroy, white bookshelves with every book rigidly straight, a white hospital screen around his kitchen nook, a square white table and two white wooden chairs. Even the floor had been painted white! Not a mark on it either. His lights were white fluorescent. The only touch of colour was a grey army blanket on his double bed.
Since he’d got personal first with that bit about my breasts-the cheek!-I said exactly what I was thinking. “My God, you must be obsessional! I’ll bet when you squeeze the paint out of a tube, you do it from the bottom, then carefully bend the empty bit over and make sure it’s perfectly squared.”
He grinned and cocked his head to one side like an alert little dog. “Sit down,” he said, disappearing behind his screen to make the coffee.
I sat and talked to him through the crisply ironed cotton folds of the screen, and when he came out with the coffee in two white mugs, we just kept on talking. He was a bush boy, he said, grew up around the enormous cattle stations of western Queensland and the Northern Territory. His father had been a barracks cook, but first and foremost a boozer, so it was Toby who did most of the cooking, kept his father in a job. He didn’t seem to hold that against the old boy, who eventually died of the booze. Back then, Toby’s paints were children’s watercolours and his drawing blocks cheap butcher’s paper, his pencils HB pilfered from the station office. After his dad’s death, he headed for the Big Smoke to learn how to paint properly, and in oils.
“But it’s grim, Sydney, when you don’t know a soul and the hay sticks out from behind your ears,” he said, pouring threestar hospital brandy into his second coffee. “I tried working in the cook trade-hotels, boarding houses, soup kitchens, Concord Repat Hospital. Awful, between the voices that didn’t speak English and the cockroaches everywhere except Concord. I’ll give hospitals this, they’re clean. But the food is worse than station food. Then I moved to Kings Cross. I was living in a six-by-eight shed in the backyard of a house on Kellett Street when I met Pappy. She brought me home to meet Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz, who told me I could have her attic for three quid a week and I could pay her when I had the money. You know, you see those statues of the Virgin Mary and Saint Teresa and the rest, and they’re all beautiful women. But I thought Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz, the ugly old bugger, was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. One day, when I’m more confident, I’m going to paint her with Flo on her knee.”
“Do you still cook?” I asked.
He looked scornful. “No! Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz told me to get a job tightening nuts in a factory`Youse’ll earn big bikkies and suffer not a bit, ace,’
was how she put it. I took her advice, I tighten nuts in a factory in Alexandria when I’m not up here painting.” “How long have you been in The House?” I asked. “Four years. I turn thirty in March,” he said.
When I offered to wash the coffee mugs, he looked horrified-I daresay he thought I wouldn’t do it properly. So I took myself off down to my own flat in a very thoughtful mood. What a day! What a weekend, for that matter.
Toby Evans. It has a nice ring to it. But when he’d mentioned Pappy, I caught the shadow of a new emotion in his eyes. Sadness, pain. Light dawnedhe’s in love with Pappy! Whom I haven’t seen since I moved in.
Oh, I’m tired. Time to put the light out and enjoy my second-ever sleep in a double bed. One thing I know-I am never going to sleep in a single bed again. What luxury!
Wednesday, February 3rd, 1960 All I’ve been doing when I’m not doing routine chests is slapping pink paint on everything in my flat that stays still long enough. Though I’ve been around the Cross in daylight enough now to have my bearings. It’s fabulous. The shops are like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve eaten more strange things in a week than in the whole of the rest of my life put together. There’s a French bakery produces long thin sticks of bread that are a dream, and a cake shop called a patisserie with these fantastic cakes of many layers thin as wafers instead of jam rolls and cream sponges and lamingtons like an ordinary cake shop. Nectar and ambrosia whichever way I look. I bought something called potato salad-oh, the taste! And a cabbage salad called coleslaw-I gobbled a whole little plastic bin of it and farted all night, but I don’t care. There’s a brick of mince with a hardboiled egg in the middle of it called Hungarian meatloaf. Salami instead of Devon, Tilsiter cheese instead of the sweating soapy stuff Mum buys from the grocer-I feel as if I’ve died and gone to heaven when it comes to food. It isn’t very expensive either, which amazed me so much I remarked on it to the New Australian chap in my favourite delicatessen. His answer solved my vexed question about Blue Laws and opening hours-he said that all the businesses were run by family members, though he put his finger against the side of his nose when he said it. No employees in the union sense! And it keeps the prices down.
There are a couple of underwear shops have me goggling. The windows are full of transparent black or scarlet bras and bikini bottoms, negligees that would make David keel over in a seizure. Underwear for tarts.
Pappy tried to talk me into buying some as we walked home one evening, but I declined firmly.
“I’m just too dark,” I explained. “Black or scarlet make me look as if I’ve got terminal cirrhosis of the liver.”
I tried fishing for information about the situation between her and Toby, but she eluded every bait I put on my hook. That alone is highly suspect. Oh, if only I can work out a way to get them together! Neither with a family, each immersed in important activities-Pappy her studies, Toby his canvases. They were made for each other, and they’d have beautiful children.
Sister Agatha called me to her office today and informed me that from next Monday I’m coming off Chests and going to work in Casualty X-ray. Cas! I’m tickled pink. The best work of all, no end of variety, every case serious because the unserious stuff is shunted to main X-ray. And at Queens, Cas X-ray is Monday to Friday! That’s because Queens doesn’t have many emergencies at weekends. It’s surrounded by factories to north, south and west, and east of it for miles are parks and sporting grounds. Its residential districts it shares with St. George Hospital, though it does have its share of ancient dilapidated terraces. Of course the State Government keeps trying to close Queens down, put the money Queens eats like candy floss into St. George and the small hospitals out in the west, where Sydney’s population is mushrooming.
However, I’ll back Matron against the Minister for Health any day. Queens is not about to close, my new job in Cas is safe.
“You are an excellent technician, Miss Purcell,” said Sister Agatha in her round-vowels accent, “and excellent with the patients too. These facts do not escape us.”
“Yes, Sister, thank you, Sister,” I said, backing out bowing.
Tonight’s wish: That Pappy and Toby get married.
Bash your head against a brick wall, Harriet Purcell, until the brain inside it thinks. What a fool you are! What a drongo!
Pappy and I went shopping this morning, armed with our string bags and our purses. On a Saturday morning, you can hardly move for people along Darlinghurst Road, but nobody’s ordinary up at the Cross. This stunningly beautiful woman came stalking past with a poodle dyed apricot-pink on a rhinestone lead, dressed from head to foot in apricot silk and apricot kid. Her hair was the exact-same colour as the poodle’s.
“Phew!” I breathed, staring after her.
“A knockout, isn’t he?” asked Pappy, grinning. “He?”
“Commonly known as Lady Richard. A transvestite.” “Camp as a row of tents, you mean,” I said, flabbergasted.
“No, he’s so into clothes that he’s asexual, but a lot of transvestites are heterosexual. They just like women’s clothes.”
And that was how the conversation started. Though I haven’t seen Pappy at The House, we see a lot of each other during the week, so by this time I thought I knew her. But I don’t know her at all.
She told me that it was high time I had an affair, and I fully agreed. But Norm the Vice Squad constable turned out to be a lousy kisser-drowned me in spit. We parted after our beer on the best of terms, but each of us knew there wasn’t going to be anything in it. And, though I couldn’t very well mention that to Pappy, Toby Evans is taken. A pity. I’m very attracted to him, and he looks as if he knows his way around a bed. Which was what Pappy was going on about as we walked, that My First Time couldn’t possibly be with anyone insensitive, ignorant, dopey or up himself.
“He has to be experienced, considerate and tender,” she said.
I started to laugh. “Listen to the expert!” I chortled. Turns out she is an expert.
“Harriet,” she said, sounding a bit exasperated, “haven’t you wondered why you don’t see much of me at the weekend?”
I said I had wondered, but presumed she was deep in a book.
“Oh, Harriet, you’re dense!” she exclaimed. “I spend the weekends having sex with men.”
“Men?” I asked, winded. “Yes, men.”
“In the plural?” “In the plural.”
Where does one go from there? I was still looking for what to say next when we turned into Victoria Street.
“Because I’m looking for something.” “The perfect lover?”
She rocked her head from side to side as if she’d like to shake me rather than it. “No, no, no! It’s not about sex, it’s about the spirit. I’m looking for a soul mate, I suppose.”
I nearly suggested that he was sloshing paint on a canvas in the attic, but I bit my tongue and didn’t. There was a young chap sitting on the stairs when we came in. Pappy flicked me a small smile of apology as he rose to his feet, and I scuttled ahead of them to my pink flat, where I sat down rather suddenly to get my wind back. So that was what Norm the Vice Squad constable had meant when he said Pappy didn’t charge! No doubt she’d had sex with him too.
Time to sort out your priorities, Harriet Purcell. Everything you’ve been brought up to believe in is hanging in the balance. Pappy can’t qualify as a “nice girl”, yet she’s the nicest girl I’ve ever met. But nice girls do not distribute sexual favours freely to any amount of men. It’s only trollops do that. Pappy a trollop?
No, that I won’t admit! I am the sole member of my Bronte-Bondi-Waverley group
hasn’t had at least one affair, but Merle, for instance, doesn’t think of herself as a trollop any more than she really is. Oh, the emotional gyrations I’ve witnessed as Merle plunged into love! The rhapsodies, the furies, the doubts, the eventual disillusionment. And those awful days once, while she waited for her overdue period to appear. It did, and the relief was something I’d felt as keenly as she, putting myself in her place. If anything keeps us on the straight and narrow, it’s the fear of pregnancy. The only people who do abortions use knitting needles, but the alternative is a ruined reputation. Usually what happens is a sudden fourmonth disappearance, or a very hasty wedding and a “premature” baby. But whether a girl chooses to go into a home for four months and then adopt her baby out, or whether she marries the bloke, the talk follows her for the rest of her days. “She had to get married!” or “Well, we all know, don’t we? She walks round with a face as long as a wet week, the fellow isn’t to be seen, she looks fat in the waist, and then suddenly she visits her granny in Western Australia for a few monthswho does she think she’s fooling, eh?”