Authors: Elizabeth Jolley
Elizabeth Jolley is one of Australia's most celebrated writers, with a formidable international reputation. She has been recognised in Australia with an AO for services to literature, and awarded honorary doctorates from four universities.
Born in England in 1923, she was brought up in a strict, German-speaking household and attended a Quaker boarding school. She became a nurse, married Leonard Jolley and with three children moved to Western Australia in 1959.
Although she wrote all her life, it was not until she was in her fifties that Elizabeth's books started to receive the recognition they deserved. She won
Book of the Year Award on three separate occasions (for
Mr Scobie's Riddle, My Father's Moon
The Georges' Wife
) and the Miles Franklin Award for
, as well as many other awards. Elizabeth Jolley died in 2007.
ALSO BY ELIZABETH JOLLEY
Five Acre Virgin
The Travelling Entertainer
Woman in a Lampshade
The Newspaper of Claremont Street
Mr Scobie's Riddle
Miss Peabody's Inheritance
Milk and Honey
The Sugar Mother
My Father's Moon
The Georges' Wife
The Orchard Thieves
An Accommodating Spouse
An Innocent Gentleman
Off the Air
Diary of a Weekend Farmer
Learning to Dance
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First published by Viking USA, 1986
Published by Penguin Books Australia Ltd 1987
This edition published by Penguin Group (Australia), 2007
Text copyright Â© The Estate of Elizabeth Jolley 1986
The moral right of the author has been asserted
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
For Leonard Jolley
This book is offered as an expression of thanks to the Literature Board of the Australia Council and to the Western Australian Institute of Technology. The final draft of the book was written this year during which time I have been receiving a Literature Board Fellowship.
To the Western Australian Institute of Technology I am indebted for the continuing privilege of being with students and colleagues in the School of English and for the provision of a room in which to write. I would like, in particular, to thank Don Watts, Brian Dibble and Don Grant.
you brought me, Hester? What have you brought me from the shop?'
âI've brought Katherine, Father,' Miss Harper said. âI've brought Katherine, but she's for me.'
Miss Hester Harper and Katherine are driving home from a celebration, a party at the hotel in town, to which Miss Harper has been an unwilling guest. Katherine had wanted very much to go to the party. She is under the spell of a succession of film stars, the present one being John Travolta. She tries to walk exactly as he walks. Having seen every one of his films several times she is able to imagine herself, when dancing, as his chosen perpetual partner. Miss Harper, unable to refuse Kathy anything, has endured a long evening bearing at least two insults, one of these, because of the Peter Pan collar, laden with disturbing implication. She also suffered during the evening's long drawn-out entertainment a renewal of the realization of her own changed status brought about by recent events.
When the end finally came Katherine had insisted on driving. âYou sit back Miss Harper, dear, and take a rest.' She had covered Miss Harper's bony knees with a cheerful tartan rug before taking her place behind the wheel. âIf I'm to get my test next week Miss Harper, dear,' her purring soft voice soothed, âI'd better get in some practice hadn't I.' With nimble fingers she had quickly taken the ignition key.
The two women do not speak much during the long drive home. At first it is a moonlight night, dry and clear. The chill air carries the fragrance of the ploughed earth. Liking this but wishing for the sharp scent of rain on the dusty paddocks Hester thinks to herself, not for the first time, that the nights in the wheat are either moonlit or quite black. As soon as she has this thought the moon seems to slide into a bank of ribbed dark cloud. Raising her eyebrows and shrugging her thin shoulders she settles herself more comfortably in the passenger seat.
Sometimes during the day, when making this long drive into town or from town, Hester thinks about walking instead of driving. Life would be changed completely if a person walked all the way. Sometimes, in the car, she feels tempted to get out and start walking. The road between the endless paddocks of wheat would lie before her quite deserted and she would accept a different view of time and journey. When walking like this, on and on, no one in the whole world could know where she was. The occupation of a small fragment of the earth is known only to the one person who is alone on it. She imagines the feeling of being unseen and not known about while standing in one isolated place. She would be small and safe walking and pausing to stand still low down under the immense clear blue sky. Perhaps, she thinks, her fear might disappear. It might dissolve, dissipate itself into the light, gently moving air.
Thoughts of walking do not accompany night driving, such ideas at the outset of a long drive in a remote place are best put out of the mind.
The only tolerable part of the evening, Hester reflects, was Kathy's dancing. The girl's energetic rhythmic movements and the yellow dress, in spite of Rosalie Borden's unexpected attack, were by her perhaps one-sided standards, superb. She smiles to herself remembering the music and the dancing, Katherine forever imagining herself as John Travolta's rightful partner. And then there was the sweetness of Katherine's thoughtfulness, the way in which she put aside her own wishes to come over, knowing Hester's weakness for sweet things.
âMiss Harper, dear,' she hears still the piping but gentle voice, âI thought you'd like the sherry trifle â¦'
Almost nodding off Hester gives way to some profound thoughts. âLife,' she declares inside her head, âis like a wood heap. People do things to ameliorate and to alleviate. With one little detail after another people move through life. It is like taking wood from the heap, one log at a time to the fire, or in summer, the slow stacking of one log upon another when a wood pile is being moved or rebuilt.' She yawns.
The road between black paddocks edged with the black shadows of the saltbush is flat and straight. Every now and then swirls of white mist come towards them and sometimes, when there is a dip in the road, they are completely enshrouded as if in a light white endlessly winding garment.
âHow the night can change,' Hester says. The surrounding countryside, she adds, could seem desolate and frightening for anyone travelling especially if they had no home to go to. Katherine agrees saying that she for one would not want to drive the long road at night alone. âI'm so glad we're together Miss Harper, dear,' she says.
Pleasantly lulled with thoughts of Katherine's happiness at the dance and with looking forward to her own warm bed and possibly because of the enormous, even when shared, plateful of sherry trifle Miss Harper sleeps. She hardly notices when they turn off the road onto the track. It seems, when she does rouse herself, that Kathy is driving too fast.
âKatherine! Not so fast,' she warns, âKatherine! I said, not so fast! Watch the track. You're going too fast. Slow down Katherine! For heaven's sake! Do be careful. You'll have us over in the scrub if you're not careful! Kathy! You'll lose your licence before you get it!'
Katherine slows down, âI guess I'm still excited Miss Harper, dear,' she says. âI'm real sorry if I scared you.' She is, carefully, as American as possible especially with the word you. She chatters on telling Miss Harper how exciting it is that Joanna will be with them in time for the town fÃªte. âJoanna,' she reminds Hester, âis really looking forward to the visit. It was a real shame that she was three years in that place, only remand Miss Harper dear, because of her boyfriend, remember? And I've such a wonderful idea for our jam and pickle stall. Oh Miss Harper, dear, wait till you hear my idea â¦ Joanna and I could be â¦ Oh it's all so Romantic Miss Harper, dear, it's love interest!' Katherine sighs, âJust right now I would so love to be getting married. A double wedding would be nice â Joanna and me both being married. Just think a long drive like this â¦' she sighs again. For reply, Hester gives one of her snorts to which nothing more can be said. Joanna's impending visit is just another detail in the wood heap which is life Miss Hester tells herself. She reminds herself, not for the first time that she is wishing that something could recall Joanna to the safe place where she has been and that she, Hester, could manage to live very happily without this forthcoming visit, this apparently simple thing which carries so much complication.
âOh Miss Harper, dear,' Katherine says after a short silence, âcould I make some baby clothes for the fÃªte, for our stall â you know little dresses, with smocking, and, I know, little bibs trimmed with lace, I know they'd sell.'
âBabies eat their lace,' Hester says grimly. âKeep your mind on the road please,' she adds as Katherine pressing her foot harder on the accelerator causes the Toyota to leap on the track.
âKatherine!' Hester's voice is tense. âKatherine we're nearly at the bend. Slow down! I can see the bend. Slow down!'
âOh wasn't it a lovely party,' Katherine, in her piping voice, sings:
Dinga Donga Bella Yair Yair
Pussa inna wella Yair Yair Yair
Dinga Donga Bella Huh Huh Yair
âWow! Miss Harper! I sure enjoyed myself.'
âI'm glad of it, Kathy,' Miss Harper says, âbut do for heaven's sake slow down.'
Pussa inna wella
Hoohah putta inna Huh Huh Huh
Yair Yair Yair
Dinga Donga Bella Yair Yair
âOh don't keep singing that crazy song!' Hester says crossly. âI can't think how anyone could think a nursery rhyme could be a song for dancing â whatever that ridiculous thing, supposed to be a dance, was.'
âAw, you liked it, Miss Harper, dear, it was the pussycat freeze. Did you like it Miss Harper? You did, dear, didn't you? Eh? Eh?' Katherine presses her thumb on the horn. âAnd what about the break-dance huh? Eh?'
âStop the car Katherine, I'll drive now.'
âWeee-wopp-here we go! Nearly home, Miss Harper, dear. Nearly at the last bend. Oops â sorry! caught the bushes, hit a rock. Blast! Shit! Oops sorry Miss Harper, dear, hit the rocks again, always get that rock. I don't hack it.' Katherine laughs in a shrill voice. âI wish Joanna was here already. Wish you was here already Joanna. Joanna JOANNA.'
âLook out! oh look out! There's something on the track,' Hester's voice, shrieking, is hoarse with fear, âLook out. Oh God! The bend. Brake! Katherine! Brake! The bend. There's someone there, someone on the track. For God's sake, child brake!'