Authors: Colleen McCullough
I don’t believe I’ve ever subscribed to that sort of malice, but it is a fact of every girl’s life. Yet here is Pappy, whom I love, playing with fire in all directions from pregnancy to V .D. to the possibility of being bashed up. Using sex to look for a soul mate! But how can sex find the soul in a man? The trouble is, I don’t know any answers. What I do know is that I can’t think any the worse of Pappy.
Oh, poor Toby! How must he feel? Has
she had sex with him? Or is he the one she doesn’t fancy? Yes, I don’t know why I think that, but I do.
I couldn’t settle, so I decided to go for a walk, lose myself in those crowds of fascinating people up at the Cross. But as I went through the front hall, there was Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz sweeping it. To little effect. She used the broom so hard and fast that the dust just rose in clouds and then crusted on the floor behind her. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask if she’d ever thought of sprinkling wet tea leaves before she swept, but I wasn’t game.
“Ripperace!” she said, beaming. “Come upstairs and have a wee snort of brandy.”
“I haven’t seen hide nor hair of you since I moved in,” I said as I followed her up the stairs.
“Never intrude on people when they’re busy, princess,” she said, flopping down on her chair on the balcony and glugging brandy into two Kraft cheese spread glasses. Flo had been clinging to her skirts throughout, but now she scrambled onto my lap and lay looking up at me with those tragic amber eyes, yet smiling.
I sipped at the revolting stuff, but I couldn’t like it. “I never hear Flo,” I said. “Does she talk?”
“All the time, princess,” said Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz.
She was handling a pack of over-sized cards, then she fixed her X-ray eyes on me and put the cards down. “What’s bothering you?” she asked.
“Pappy says she sleeps with a lot of men.” “Yep, that she does.”
“What do you think about it? I always thought that landladies evicted girls who have men in their flats, and I know you do when it’s the front ground floor flat.”
“It ain’t right to make real good women think they’re wicked just because they like a bit of nooky,” she said, drinking deeply. “Nooky’s as normal and natural as pissin’ and shittin’. As for Pappy, what’s there to think about? Sex is her way of voyaging.” Another X-ray glare at me. “It ain’t your way, but, is it?”
I felt inadequate and squirmed. “Not so far, anyway,” I said, and sipped again. Willie’s tipple was beginning to taste better.
“You and Pappy are the opposite ends of women’s life,” said Mrs.
Delvecchio Schwartz. “To Pappy, no touch means no love. She’s a Libran Queen of Swords, and that ain’t strong. Her Mars, mostly. Very poorly aspected. So’s her Jupiter. Moon in Gemini squared to Saturn.”
I think I’ve remembered that correctly. “What am I?” I asked.
“Dunno ‘til you tell me when you was born, princess.” “November the eleventh, nineteen thirty-eight,” I said. “Ah! Knew it! Scorpio woman! Very strong! Where?” “Vinnie’s Hospital.”
“Right next door to the Cross! What time?”
I racked my brains. “A minute past eleven in the morning.”
“Eleven, eleven, eleven. Oh, bonza! Ripperace!” She huffed and creaked her chair, leaned back in it and closed her eyes. “Um, lessee … You rise in Aquariuswell, well!” The next minute she was on her hands and knees at a little cupboard to bring out a book so well worn it was falling to pieces, a few sheets of paper, and a cheap little plastic protractor. One of the sheets of paper, blank, was thrown to me together with a pencil.
“Write it all down as I tell youse,” she said, and looked at Flo. “Angel puss, gimme some of your crayons.” Flo slid off my lap and trotted into the living room, returned bearing a handful in blue, green, red, purple and brown.
“I do it all in me head-oughta be able to, after all these years,” said Mrs.
Delvecchio Schwartz, consulting her ratty book and making mysterious marks on a sheet already drawn up like a pie separated into twelve equal slices. “Yep, yep, real interesting. Write, Harriet, write! Three oppositions, all potent-Sun to Uranus, Mars to Saturn, Uranus to Midheaven. Most of the tension is removed by squares-lucky, eh?”
As she spoke at normal pace, I had to do a Flo and scribble to get all this down.
“Jupiter in the first house in Aquarius, your rising sign-very powerful!
You’re gunna have a fortunate life, Harriet Purcell. Sun’s in the tenth house, means you’re gunna make your career your whole life.”
That made me sit up straight! I scowled at her. “No, I am not!” I snapped.
“I’m darned if I’ll keep on taking X-rays until I’m old enough to retire! Carry a lead apron
on my shoulders for forty years and have blood tests once a month? Bugger that!”
“There are careers and careers,” she smirked. “Venus is in the tenth house too, and your Moon’s in Cancer. Saturn’s on the cusp of the second and third houses, means you’ll always look after them what can’t look after themselves.”
She sighed. “Oh, there’s lotsa stuff, but none of it’s worth a tuppenny bumper compared to your perfect quincunx between the Moon and Mercury!”
“Quincunx?” It sounded absolutely obscene.
“That’s the aspect will do for me,” she said, brushing her hands together in huge satisfaction. “You gotta look at everything in a chart before the quincunx makes sense, but the way your stars have progressed since you was born says the quincunx is it.” The X-ray vision eyed me again, then she got to her feet, went inside and opened the fridge. Back she came with a plate holding chunks of what looked like horizontal sections through a snake. “Here, have some, princess. Smoked eel. Very high brain food. Klaus’s mate Lerner Chusovich catches ‘em and smokes ‘em himself.”
The smoked eel was delicious, so I tucked in.
“You know a lot about astrology,” I said, chewing away.
“I should bloody hope so! I’m a soothsayer,” she said. Suddenly I remembered the bluerinsed lady from the upper North Shore, the several others I had encountered in the front hall, and a lot of things fell into place.
“Those prosperous-looking women are clients?” I asked.
“Bullseye, ace!” She speared me on those icy searchlights yet again. “D’you believe in the hereafter?” I thought about that before I answered. “Only maybe. It’s a bit hard to believe in the reason and justice behind God’s immutable purpose when you work in a hospital.” “This ain’t about God, it’s about the hereafter.”
I said I wasn’t sure about that either.
“Well, I deal in the hereafter,” said Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz. “I cast horoscopes, deal out the cards, scry into me Glass”-she said it with a capital letter”communicate with the dead.”
“Haven’t got a clue, princess!” she said cheerfully. “Didn’t even know I could until I was past thirty.”
Flo climbed onto her lap for some mother’s milk, and was put down gently but firmly. “Not now, angel puss, Harriet and I are talking.” She went to the little cupboard and brought out a very heavy object covered with dirty pink silk, put it on the table. Then she handed me the deck of cards. I turned them over expecting to see the usual hearts, diamonds, clubs, spades, but these were pictures. The one on the bottom showed a naked woman surrounded by a wreath, all of it brightly coloured.
“That’s the World,” said Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz. Underneath was a card showing a hand holding a chalice which poured out thin streams of liquid. A dove with a small circular object in its beak hovered upside down over the chalice, on which was written what looked like a W.
“The Ace of Cups,” she said.
I put the deck down very gingerly. “What are they?” “A tarot pack, princess.
I can do all sorts of things with it. I can read your fortune if you like. Ask me a question about your future, and I’ll answer it. I can sit down all by meself and deal out a gypsy spread to get the feel of what’s happening in The House, to the people in my care. The cards have mouths. They speak.”
“Rather you to hear them than me,” I said, shivering. She went on as if I hadn’t interrupted. “This is the Glass,” she said, whipping the dirty pink silk off the object she’d taken from the cupboard. Then she reached across the table to take my hand, and put it on the cool surface of that beautiful thing.
Flo, standing watching, suddenly gasped and fled to hide behind her mother, then peered at me from around that bulk with wide eyes. “Is it glass?” I asked, fascinated at how it held everything inside it-the balcony, its owner, a plane tree-but upside down.
“Nope, it’s the real thing-crystal. A thousand years old. Seen everything, has the Glass. I don’t use it much, it’s like a fit of the dry horrors.”
“Dry horrors?” How many questions were there to ask?
“The gin jitters, the whisky wackos-delirium tremens. With the Glass, youse never knows what’s gunna come screamin’ up to push its face against the inside of the outside. Nope, I use the cards most. And for me ladies, Flo.”
The moment she uttered Flo’s name, I knew why I was being made privy to all this. Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz, for what reason I had no idea, had decided that I must be told about this secret life. So I asked the ultimate question.
“Yep, Flo. She’s me medium. She just knows the answers to the questions me ladies ask. I wasn’t born with the gift meself-it just sorta snuck up on me when I was-oh, Harriet, desperate for money! I started the fortune telling as a racket, and that’s honest. Then I discovered I did have the gift. But Flo’s a natural. Scares the bejeezus outta me sometimes, does Flo.”
Yes, and she scares the bejeezus out of me too, though not with revulsion. I could believe it all. Flo doesn’t look as if she belongs to this world, so it isn’t much of a surprise to find that she has access to another world. Maybe it is her natural one. Or maybe she’s an hysteric. They come in all ages, hysterics. But knowing, I simply loved Flo more. It answered the riddle of the sorrow in her eyes. What she must see and feel! A natural.
After drinking a full glass of brandy, I got down the stairs rather clumsily, but I didn’t flop on my bed to sleep it off, I wanted to get all this down before I forgot it. And I’m sitting here with my Biro in my hand wondering why I’m not outraged, why I’m not of a mind to give Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz the sharp edge of my tongue for exploiting her weeny daughter. I do have a sharp edge to my tongue. But this is so far from anything I know or understand, and even in the short time I’ve
lived here, I’ve grown a lot. At least that’s how I feel. Sort of new and changed.
I like that monstrosity named Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz, but I love her child.
What stills the sharp edge of my tongue, Horatio, is the realisation that there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than Bronte’s philosophy ever dreamed of. And I can’t go back to Bronte any more. I can never go back to Bronte.
Flo the medium. Her mother had implied that she herself communicated with the dead through the Glass, but she hadn’t really described Flo’s mediumistic activities as concerned with the dead. Flo knows the answers to the questions “me ladies” ask. I conjured up visions of “me ladies” and had to admit that they didn’t look like women chasing beloved phantoms. All different, but none with that air of unassuaged grief. Whatever drove them to seek help from Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz was, I somehow knew, connected to this world, not the next. Though Flo was not of this world.
Perhaps in the beginning, when it was a racket to earn the money she was desperate for, Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz valued money. I imagine it bought her The House. But these days? In that bare, bleak, awful surrounding? Mrs.
Delvecchio Schwartz doesn’t give tuppence for comfort, and nor does Flo.
Wherever they dwell, it isn’t among pretty dresses and comfy couches. I can even understand why Flo is still feeding off the breast. It’s a link with her mother she needs. Oh, Flo! Angel puss. Your mother is the whole of your world, its
beginning and its end. She’s your anchor and your refuge. And I am honoured that you’ve welcomed me into your affections, angel puss. I feel blessed.
I started in Casualty X-ray this morning, I must confess not quite such an eager beaver as I used to be. My life is getting a weeny bit complicated, between nymphomania and soothsaying. Though I’m not sure that confining one’s sexual activity to the weekend qualifies as nymphomania. However, within ten minutes of starting, I forgot that there was any other world than Cas X-ray.
There are three of us-a senior, a middleman (me), and a junior. I’m not sure that I like Christine Leigh Hamilton, as my boss introduced herself. She’s in her middle thirties, and, from overhearing the occasional conversation between her and Sister Cas, she’s just starting to suffer what I call the “Old Maid Syndrome”. If I’m still single when I hit my middle thirties, I will cut my own throat rather than go through the Old Maid Syndrome. It arises out of spinsterhood and contemplation of an old age spent living with another female in relative penury unless there’s money in the family, which there usually isn’t. And the chief symptom is an overwhelming determination to catch a man. Get married. Have some babies. Be vindicated as a woman. I sympathise, even if I’m determined not to
contract the malady myself. I’m never sure which drive is uppermost in the O.M.S.-the drive to find someone to love and be loved back, or the drive to achieve financial security. Of course Chris is an X-ray technician, so she’s paid a man’s wage, but if she went to a bank and asked for a mortgage so she could buy a house, she’d be turned down. Banks don’t give mortgages to women, no matter what they’re paid. And most women are paid poorly, so they never manage to save much for their old age. I was talking to Jim about it-she’s a master printer, but she doesn’t get equal pay for equal work. No wonder some women go funny and abrogate men altogether. Bob is a secretary to some tycoon, isn’t exactly overpaid either. And if you work for the Government, you have to leave when you get married. That’s why all the sisters and female department heads are old maids. Though a very few are widows.
“If it wasn’t for Mrs. Delvecchio Schwartz, we’d lead a dog’s life,” Jim told me. “Running scared of being found out and evicted, not able to afford to buy a place. The House is our lifeline.”