The Thorn Birds (Chapter 6-10)
The Thorn Birds
by Colleen Mc Cullough
The Sacred Heart convent was two-storied, but because it stood well back from the road behind a fence, the fact was not easily apparent. The three nuns of the Order of the Sisters of Mercy who staffed it lived upstairs with a fourth nun, who acted as housekeeper and was never seen; downstairs were the three big rooms in which school was taught. A wide, shady veranda ran all the way around the rectangular building, where on rainy days the children were allowed to sit decorously during their play and lunch breaks, and where on sunny days no child was permitted to set foot. Several large fig trees shaded a part of the spacious grounds, and behind the school the land sloped away a little to a grassy circle euphemistically christened “the cricket pitch,” from the chief activity that went on in that area.
Ignoring muffled sniggers from the lined-up children, Bob and his brothers stood perfectly still while the pupils marched inside to the sound of Sister Catherine plunking “Faith of Our Fathers” on the tinny school piano. Only when the last child had disappeared did Sister Agatha break her rigid pose; heavy serge skirts swishing the gravel aside imperiously, she strode to where the Clearys waited.
Meggie gaped at her, never having seen a nun before. The sight was truly extraordinary; three dabs of person, which were Sister Agatha’s face and hands, the rest white starched wimple and bib glaring against layers of blackest black, with a massive rope of wooden rosary beads dangling from an iron ring that joined the ends of a wide leather belt around Sister Agatha’s stout middle. Sister Agatha’s skin was permanently red, from too much cleanliness and the pressure of the knifelike edges of the wimple framing the front center of her head into something too disembodied to be called a face; little hairs sprouted in tufts all over her chin, which the wimple ruthlessly squashed double. Her lips were quite invisible, compressed into a single line of concentration on the hard business of being the Bride of Christ in a colonial backwater with topsy-turvy seasons when she had taken her vows in the sweet softness of a Killarney abbey over fifty years before. Two small crimson marks were etched into the sides of her nose from the remorseless grip of her round, steel-framed spectacles, and behind them her eyes peered out suspiciously, pale-blue and bitter.
“Well, Robert Cleary, why are you late?” Sister Agatha barked in her dry, once Irish voice.
“I’m sorry, Sister,” Bob replied woodenly, his blue-green eyes still riveted on the tip of the quivering cane as it waved back and forth.
“Why are you late?” she repeated.
“I’m sorry, Sister.”
“This is the first morning of the new school year, Robert Cleary, and I would have thought that on this morning if not on others you might have made an effort to be on time.”
Meggie shivered, but plucked up her courage. “Oh, please, Sister, it was my fault!” she squeaked.
The pale-blue eyes deviated from Bob and seemed to go through and through Meggie’s very soul as she stood there gazing up in genuine innocence, not aware she was breaking the first rule of conduct in a deadly duel which went on between teachers and pupils ad infinitum: never volunteer information. Bob kicked her swiftly on the leg and Meggie looked at him sideways, bewildered.
“Why was it your fault?” the nun demanded in the coldest tones Meggie had ever heard.
“Well, I was sick all over the table and it went right through to my drawers, so Mum had to wash me and change my dress, and I made us all late,” Meggie explained artlessly.
Sister Agatha’s features remained expressionless, but her mouth tightened like an overwound spring, and the tip of the cane lowered itself an inch or two. “Who is this?” she snapped to Bob, as if the object of her inquiry were a new and particularly obnoxious species of insect.
“Please, Sister, she’s my sister Meghann.”
“Then in future you will make her understand that there are certain subjects we do not ever mention, Robert, if we are true ladies and gentlemen. On no account do we ever, ever mention by name any item of our underclothing, as children from a decent household would automatically know. Hold out your hands, all of you.”
“But, Sister, it was my fault!” Meggie wailed as she extended her hands palms up, for she had seen her brothers do it in pantomime at home a thousand times.
“Silence!” Sister Agatha hissed, turning on her. “It is a matter of complete indifference to me which one of you was responsible. You are all late, therefore you must all be punished. Six cuts.” She pronounced the sentence with monotonous relish.
Terrified, Meggie watched Bob’s steady hands, saw the long cane whistle down almost faster than her eyes could follow, and crack sharply against the center of his palms, where the flesh was soft and tender. A purple welt flared up immediately; the next cut came at the junction of fingers and palm, more sensitive still, and the final one across the tips of the fingers, where the brain has loaded the skin down with more sensation than anywhere else save the lips. Sister Agatha’s aim was perfect. Three more cuts followed on Bob’s other hand before she turned her attention to Jack, next in line. Bob’s face was pale but he made no outcry or movement, nor did his brothers as their turns came; even quiet and tenderStu.
As they followed the upward rise of the cane above her own hands Meggie’s eyes closed involuntarily, so she did not see the descent. But the pain was like a vast explosion, a scorching, searing invasion of her flesh right down to the bone; even as the ache spread tingling up her forearm the next cut came, and by the time it had reached her shoulder the final cut across her fingertips was screaming along the same path, all the way through to her heart. She fastened her teeth in her lower lip and bit down on it, too ashamed and too proud to cry, too angry and indignant at the injustice of it to dare open her eyes and look at Sister Agatha; the lesson was sinking in, even if the crux of it was not what Sister Agatha intended to teach.
It was lunchtime before the last of the pain died out of her hands. Meggie had passed the morning in a haze of fright and bewilderment, not understanding anything that was said or done. Pushed into a double desk in the back row of the youngest children’s classroom, she did not even notice who was sharing the desk until after a miserable lunch hour spent huddled behind Bob and Jack in a secluded corner of the playground. Only Bob’s stern command persuaded her to eat Fee’s gooseberry jam sandwiches.
When the bell rang for afternoon classes and Meggie found a place on line, her eyes finally began to clear enough to take in what was going on around her. The disgrace of the caning rankled as sharply as ever, but she held her head high and affected not to notice the nudges and whispers of the little girls near her.
Sister Agatha was standing in front with her cane; Sister Declan prowled up and down behind the lines; Sister Catherine seated herself at the piano just inside the youngest children’s classroom door and began to play “Onward, Christian Soldiers” with a heavy emphasis on two-four time. It was, properly speaking, a Protestant hymn, but the war had rendered it interdenominational. The dear children marched to it just like wee soldiers, Sister Catherine thought proudly.
Of the three nuns, Sister Declan was a replica of Sister Agatha minus fifteen years of life, where Sister Catherine was still remotely human. She was only in her thirties, Irish of course, and the bloom of her ardor had not yet entirely faded; she still found joy in teaching, still saw Christ’s imperishable Image in the little faces turned up to hers so adoringly. But she taught the oldest children, whom Sister Agatha deemed beaten enough to behave in spite of a young and soft supervisor. Sister Agatha herself took the youngest children to form minds and hearts out of infantile clay, leaving those in the middle grades to Sister Declan.
Safely hidden in the last row of desks, Meggie dared to glance sideways at the little girl sitting next to her. A gap-toothed grin met her frightened gaze, huge black eyes staring roundly out of a dark, slightly shiny face. She fascinated Meggie, used to fairness and freckles, for even Frank with his dark eyes and hair had a fair white skin; so Meggie ended in thinking her deskmate the most beautiful creature she had ever seen.
“What’s your name?” the dark beauty muttered out of the side of her mouth, chewing on the end of her pencil and spitting the frayed bits into her empty ink-well hole.
“Meggie Cleary,” she whispered back.
“You there!” came a dry, harsh voice from the front of the classroom.
Meggie jumped, looking around in bewilderment. There was a hollow clatter as twenty children all put their pencils down together, a muted rustling as precious sheets of paper were shuffled to one side so elbows could be surreptitiously placed on desks. With a heart that seemed to crumple down toward her boots, Meggie realized everyone was staring at her. Sister Agatha was coming down the aisle rapidly; Meggie’s terror was so acute that had there only been somewhere to flee, she would have run for her life. But behind her was the partition shutting off the middle grade’s room, on either side desks crowded her in, and in front was Sister Agatha. Her eyes nearly filled her pinched little face as she stared up at the nun in suffocated fear, her hands clenching and unclenching on the desktop.
“You spoke, Meghann Cleary.”
“And what did you say?”
“My name, Sister.”
“Your name!” Sister Agatha sneered, looking around at the other children as if they, too, surely must share her contempt. “Well, children, are we not honored? Another Cleary in our school, and she cannot wait to broadcast her name!” She turned back to Meggie. “Stand up when I address you, you ignorant little savage! And hold out your hands, please.”
Meggie scrambled out of her seat, her long curls swinging across her face and bouncing away. Gripping her hands together, she wrung them desperately, but Sister Agatha did not move, only waited, waited, waited…. Then somehow Meggie managed to force her hands out, but as the cane descended she snatched them away, gasping in terror. Sister Agatha locked her fingers in the bunched hair on top of Meggie’s head and hauled her closer, bringing her face up to within inches of those dreadful spectacles.
“Hold out your hands, Meghann Cleary.” It was said courteously, coldly, implacably.
Meggie opened her mouth and vomited all over the front of Sister Agatha’s habit. There was a horrified intake of breath from every child in the room as Sister Agatha stood with the disgusting sick dripping down her black pleats onto the floor, her face purple with rage and astonishment. Then down came the cane, anywhere it could land on Meggie’s body as she flung up her arms to shield her face and cringed, still retching, into the corner. When Sister Agatha’s arm was so tired it did not want to lift the cane, she pointed toward the door.
“Go home, you revolting little Philistine,” she said, turned on her heel and went through into Sister Declan’s classroom.
Meggie’s frantic gaze found Stu; he nodded his head as if to tell her she must do as she was told, his soft blue-green eyes full of pity and understanding. Wiping her mouth with her handkerchief, she stumbled through the door and out into the playground. There were still two hours to go before school was dismissed; she plodded down the street without interest, knowing there was no chance the boys would catch up with her, and too frightened to find somewhere to wait for them. She had to go home on her own, confess to Mum on her own.
Fee nearly fell over her as she staggered out of the back door with a full basket of wet washing. Meggie was sitting on the top-step of the back veranda, her head down, the ends of her bright curls sticky and the front of her dress stained. Putting down the crushing weight of the basket, Fee sighed, pushed a strand of wayward hair out of her eyes.
“Well, what happened?” she demanded tiredly.
“I was sick all over Sister Agatha.”
“Oh, Lord!” Fee said, her hands on her hips.
“I got caned, too,” Meggie whispered, the tears standing unshed in her eyes.
“A nice kettle of fish, I must say.” Fee heaved her basket up, swaying until she got it balanced. “Well, Meggie, I don’t know what to do with you. We’ll have to wait and see what Daddy says.” And she walked off across the backyard toward the flapping half-full clotheslines.
Rubbing her hands wearily around her face, Meggie stared after her mother for a moment, then got up and started down the path to the forge.
Frank had just finished shoeing Mr. Robertson’s bay mare, and was backing it into a stall when Meggie appeared in the doorway. He turned and saw her, and memories of his own terrible misery at school came flooding back to him. She was so little, so baby-plump and innocent and sweet, but the light in the eyes had been brutally quenched and an expression lurked there which made him want to murder Sister Agatha. Murder her, really murder her, take the double chins and squeeze…. Down went his tools, off came his apron; he walked to her quickly.
“What’s the matter, dear?” he asked, bending over until her face was level with his own. The smell of vomit rose from her like a miasma, but he crushed his impulse to turn away.
“Oh, Fruh-Fruh-Frank!” she wailed, her face twisting up and her tears undammed at last. She threw her arms around his neck and clung to him passionately, weeping in the curiously silent, painful way all the Cleary children did once they were out of infancy. It was horrible to watch, and not something soft words or kisses could heal.
When she was calm again he picked her up and carried her to a pile of sweet-smelling hay near Mr. Robertson’s mare; they sat there together and let the horse lip at the edges of their straw bed, lost to the world. Meggie’s head was cradled on Frank’s smooth bare chest, tendrils of her hair flying around as the horse blew gusty breaths into the hay, snorting with pleasure.
“Why did she cane all of us, Frank?” Meggie asked. “I told her it was my fault.”
Frank had got used to her smell and didn’t mind it any more; he reached out a hand and absently stroked the mare’s nose, pushing it away when it got too inquisitive.
“We’re poor, Meggie, that’s the main reason. The nuns always hate poor pupils. After you’ve been in Sister Ag’s moldy old school a few days you’ll see it’s not only the Clearys she takes it out on, but the Marshalls and the MacDonalds as well. We’re all poor. Now, if we were rich and rode to school in a big carriage like the O’Briens, they’d be all over us like a rash. But we can’t donate organs to the church, or gold vestments to the sacristy, or a new horse and buggy to the nuns. So we don’t matter. They can do what they like to us.
“I remember one day Sister Ag was so mad at me that she kept screaming at me, ‘Cry, for the love of heaven! Make a noise, Francis Cleary! If you’d give me the satisfaction of hearing you bellow, I wouldn’t hit you so hard or so often!’
“That’s another reason why she hates us; it’s where we’re better than the Marshalls and the MacDonalds. She can’t make the Clearys cry. We’re supposed to lick her boots. Well, I told the boys what I’d do to any Cleary who even whimpered when he was caned, and that goes for you, too, Meggie. No matter how hard she beats you, not a whimper. Did you cry today?”
“No, Frank,” she yawned, her eyelids drooping and her thumb poking blindly across her face in search of her mouth. Frank put her down in the hay and went back to his work, humming and smiling.
Meggie was still asleep when Paddy walked in. His arms were filthy from mucking out Mr. Jarman’s dairy, his wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes. He took in Frank shaping an axle on the anvil, sparks swirling round his head, then his eyes passed to where his daughter was curled up in the hay, with Mr. Robertson’s bay mare hanging her head down over the sleeping face.
“I thought this is where she’d be,” Paddy said, dropping his riding crop and leading his old roan into the stable end of the barn.
Frank nodded briefly, looking up at his father with that darkling glance of doubt and uncertainty Paddy always found so irritating, then he returned to the white-hot axle, sweat making his bare sides glisten.
Unsaddling his roan, Paddy turned it into a stall, filled the water compartment and then mixed bran and oats with a little water for its food. The animal rumbled affectionately at him when he emptied the fodder into its manger, and its eyes followed him as he walked to the big trough outside the forge, took off his shirt. He washed arms and face and torso, drenching his riding breeches and his hair. Toweling himself dry on an old sack, he looked at his son quizzically.
“Mum told me Meggie was sent home in disgrace. Do you know what exactly happened?”
Frank abandoned his axle as the heat in it died. “The poor little coot was sick all over Sister Agatha.”
Wiping the grin off his face hastily, Paddy stared at the far wall for a moment to compose himself, then turned toward Meggie. “All excited about going to school, eh?”
“I don’t know. She was sick before they left this morning, and it held them up long enough to be late for the bell. They all got sixers, but Meggie was terribly upset because she thought she ought to have been the only one punished. After lunch Sister Ag pounced on her again, and our Meggie spewed bread and jam all over Sister Ag’s clean black habit.”
“What happened then?”
“Sister Ag caned her good and proper, and sent her home in disgrace.”
“Well, I’d say she’s had punishment enough. I have a lot of respect for the nuns and I know it isn’t our place to question what they do, but I wish they were a bit less eager with the cane. I know they have to beat the three R’s into our thick Irish heads, but after all, it was wee Meggie’s first day at school.”
Frank was staring at his father, amazed. Not until this moment had Paddy ever communicated man-to-man with his oldest son. Shocked out of perpetual resentment, Frank realized that for all his proud boasting, Paddy loved Meggie more than he did his sons. He found himself almost liking his father, so he smiled without the mistrust.
“She’s a bonzer little thing, isn’t she?” he asked.
Paddy nodded absently, engrossed in watching her. The horse blew its lips in and out, flapping; Meggie stirred, rolled over and opened her eyes. When she saw her father standing beside Frank she sat bolt upright, fright paling her skin.Chapter 8 “Well, Meggie girl, you’ve had quite a day, haven’t you?” Paddy went over and lifted her out of the hay, gasping as he caught a whiff of her. Then he shrugged his shoulders and held her against him hard. “I got caned, Daddy,” she confessed.
“Well, knowing Sister Agatha, it won’t be the last time,” he laughed, perching her on his shoulder. “We’d better see if Mum’s got any hot water in the copper to give you a bath. You smell worse than Jarman’s dairy.”
Frank went to the doorway and watched the two fiery heads bobbing up the path, then turned to find the bay mare’s gentle eyes fixed on him.
“Come on, you big old bitch. I’ll ride you home,” he told it, scooping up a halter.
“Well, Meggie girl, you’ve had quite a day, haven’t you?” Paddy went over and lifted her out of the hay, gasping as he caught a whiff of her. Then he shrugged his shoulders and held her against him hard.
“I got caned, Daddy,” she confessed.
“Well, knowing Sister Agatha, it won’t be the last time,” he laughed, perching her on his shoulder. “We’d better see if Mum’s got any hot water in the copper to give you a bath. You smell worse than Jarman’s dairy.”
Frank went to the doorway and watched the two fiery heads bobbing up the path, then turned to find the bay mare’s gentle eyes fixed on him.
“Come on, you big old bitch. I’ll ride you home,” he told it, scooping up a halter.
Meggie’s vomiting turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Sister Agatha still caned her regularly, but always from far enough away to escape the consequences, which lessened the strength of her arm and quite spoiled her aim.
The dark child who sat next to her was the youngest daughter of the Italian man who owned and operated Wahine’s bright blue café. Her name was Teresa Annunzio, and she was just dull enough to escape Sister Agatha’s attention without being so dull that it turned her into Sister Agatha’s butt. When her teeth grew in she was quite strikingly beautiful, and Meggie adored her. During lesson breaks in the playground they walked with arms looped around each other’s waists, which was the sign that you were “best friends” and not available for courting by anyone else. And they talked, talked, talked.
One lunchtime Teresa took her into the café to meet her mother and father and grown-up brothers and sisters. They were as charmed with her golden fire as Meggie was with their darkness, likening her to an angel when she turned her wide, beautifully flecked grey eyes upon them. From her mother she had inherited an indefinable air of breeding which everyone felt immediately; so did the Annunzio family. As eager as Teresa to woo her, they gave her big fat potato chips fried in sizzling cauldrons of lamb dripping, and a piece of boned fish which tasted delicious, dipped as it was in floury batter and fried in the smoking well of liquid fat along with the chips, only in a separate wire basket. Meggie had never eaten food so delicious, and wished she could lunch at the café more often. But this had been a treat, requiring special permission from her mother and the nuns.
Her conversation at home was all “Teresa says” and “Do you know what Teresa did?” until Paddy roared that he had heard more than enough about Teresa.
“I don’t know that it’s such a good idea to be too thick with Dagos,” he muttered, sharing the British community’s instinctive mistrust of any dark or Mediterranean people. “Dagos are dirty, Meggie girl, they don’t wash too often,” he explained lamely, wilting under the look of hurt reproach Meggie gave him.
Fiercely jealous, Frank agreed with him. So Meggie spoke less often of her friend when she was at home. But home disapproval couldn’t interfere with the relationship, confined as it was by distance to school days and hours; Bob and the boys were only too pleased to see her utterly engrossed in Teresa. It left them to career madly around the playground just as if their sister did not exist.
The unintelligible things Sister Agatha was always writing on the blackboard gradually began to make sense, and Meggie learned that a “+” meant you counted all the numbers up to a total, where a “-” meant you took the numbers on the bottom away from the numbers on the top and wound up with less than you had in the first place. She was a bright child, and would have been an excellent if not brilliant student had she only been able to overcome her fear of Sister Agatha. But the minute those gimlet eyes turned her way and that dry old voice rapped a curt question at her, she stammered and stuttered and could not think. Arithmetic she found easy, but when called upon to demonstrate her skill verbally she could not remember how many two and two made. Reading was the entrance into a world so fascinating she couldn’t get enough of it; but when Sister Agatha made her stand to read a passage out loud, she could hardly pronounce “cat,” let alone “miaow.” It seemed to her that she was forever quivering under Sister Agatha’s sarcastic comments or flushing bright red because the rest of the class was laughing at her. For it was always her slate Sister Agatha held up to sneer at, always her laboriously written sheets of paper Sister Agatha used to demonstrate the ugliness of untidy work. Some of the richer children were lucky enough to possess erasers, but Meggie’s only eraser was the tip of her finger, which she licked and rubbed over her nervous mistakes until the writing smudged and the paper came away in miniature sausages. It made holes and was strictly forbidden, but she was desperate enough to do anything to avoid Sister Agatha’s strictures.
Until her advent Stuart had been the chief target of Sister Agatha’s cane and venom. However, Meggie was a much better target, for Stuart’s wistful tranquillity and almost saintlike aloofness were hard nuts to crack, even for Sister Agatha. On the other hand, Meggie trembled and went as red as a beet, for all she tried so manfully to adhere to the Cleary line of behavior as defined by Frank. Stuart pitied Meggie deeply and tried to make it easier for her by deliberately sidetracking the nun’s anger onto his own head. She saw through his ploys immediately, angered afresh to see the Cleary clannishness as much in evidence with the girl as it had always been among the boys. Had anyone questioned her as to exactly why she had such a down on the Clearys, she would not have been able to answer. But for an old nun as embittered by the course her life had taken as Sister Agatha, a proud and touchy family like the Clearys was not easy to swallow.
Meggie’s worst sin was being left-handed. When she gingerly picked up her slate pencil to embark on her first writing lesson, Sister Agatha descended on her like Caesar on the Gauls.
“Meghann Cleary, put that pencil down!” she thundered.
Thus began a battle royal. Meggie was incurably and hopelessly left-handed. When Sister Agatha forcibly bent the fingers of Meggie’s right hand correctly around the pencil and poised it above the slate, Meggie sat there with her head reeling and no idea in the world how to make the afflicted limb do what Sister Agatha insisted it could. She became mentally deaf, dumb and blind; that useless appendage her right hand was no more linked to her thought processes than her toes. She dribbled a line clean off the edge of the slate because she could not make it bend; she dropped her pencil as if paralyzed; nothing Sister Agatha could do would make Meggie’s right hand form an A. Then surreptitiously Meggie would transfer her pencil to her left hand, and with her arm curled awkwardly around three sides of the slate she would make a row of beautiful copper-plate A’s.
Sister Agatha won the battle. On morning line-up she tied Meggie’s left arm against her body with rope, and would not undo it until the dismissal bell rang at three in the afternoon. Even at lunchtime she had to eat, walk around and play games with her left side firmly immobilized. It took three months, but eventually she learned to write correctly according to the tenets of Sister Agatha, though the formation of her letters was never good. To make sure she would never revert to using it, her left arm was kept tied to her body for a further two months; then Sister Agatha made the whole school assemble to say a rosary of thanks to Almighty Gor for His wisdom in making Meggie see the error of her ways. God’s children were all right-handed; left-handed children were the spawn of the Devil, especially when redheaded.
In that first year of school Meggie lost her baby plumpness and became very thin, though she grew little in height. She began to bite her nails down to the quick, and had to endure Sister Agatha’s making her walk around every desk in the school holding her hands out so all the children could see how ugly bitten nails were. And this when nearly half the children between five and fifteen bit their nails as badly as Meggie did.
Fee got out the bottle of bitter aloes and painted the tips of Meggie’s fingers with the horrible stuff. Everyone in the family was enlisted to make sure she got no opportunity to wash the bitter aloes off, and when the other little girls at school noticed the telltale brown stains she was mortified. If she put her fingers in her mouth the taste was indescribable, foul and dark like sheep-dip; in desperation she spat on her handkerchief and rubbed herself raw until she got rid of the worst of it. Paddy took out his switch, a much gentler instrument than Sister Agatha’s cane, and sent her skipping round the kitchen. He did not believe in beating his children on the hands, face or buttocks, only on the legs. Legs hurt as much as anywhere, he said, and could not be damaged. However, in spite of bitter aloes, ridicule, Sister Agatha and Paddy’s switch, Meggie went on biting her nails.
Her friendship with Teresa Annunzio was the joy of her life, the only thing that made school endurable. She sat through lessons aching for playtime to come so she could sit with her arm around Teresa’s waist and Teresa’s arm around hers under the big fig tree, talking, talking. There were tales about Teresa’s extraordinary alien family, about her numerous dolls, and about her genuine willow pattern tea set.
When Meggie saw the tea set, she was overcome. It had 108 pieces, tiny miniature cups and saucersand plates, a teapot and a sugar bowl and a milk jug and a cream jug, with wee knives and spoons and forks just the right size for dolls to use. Teresa had innumerable toys; besides being much younger than her nearest sister, she belonged to an Italian family, which meant she was passionately and openly loved, and indulged to the full extent of her father’s monetary resources. Each child viewed the other with awe and envy, though Teresa never coveted Meggie’s Calvinistic, stoic up-bringing. Instead she pitied her. Not to be allowed to run to her mother with hugs and kisses? Poor Meggie!
As for Meggie, she was incapable of equating Teresa’s beaming, portly little mother with her own slender unsmiling mother, so she never thought: I wish Mum hugged and kissed me. What she did think was: I wish Teresa’s mum hugged and kissed me. Though images of hugs and kisses were far less in her mind than images of the willow pattern tea set. So delicate, so thin and wafery, so beautiful! Oh, if only she had a willow pattern tea set, and could give Agnes afternoon tea out of a deep blue-and-white cup in a deep blue-and-white saucer!
During Friday Benediction in the old church with its lovely, grotesque Maori carvings and Maori painted ceiling, Meggie knelt to pray for a willow pattern tea set of her very own. When Father Hayes held the monstrance aloft, the Host peered dimly through the glass window in the middle of its gem-encrusted rays and blessed the bowed heads of the congregation. All save Meggie, that is, for she didn’t even see the Host; she was too busy trying to remember how many plates there were in Teresa’s willow pattern tea set. And when the Maoris in the organ gallery broke into glorious song, Meggie’s head was spinning in a daze of ultramarine blue far removed from Catholicism or Polynesia.
The school year was drawing to a close, December and her birthday just beginning to threaten full summer, when Meggie learned how dearly one could buy the desire of one’s heart. She was sitting on a high stool near the stove while Fee did her hair as usual for school; it was an intricate business. Meggie’s hair had a natural tendency to curl, which her mother considered to be a great piece of good luck. Girls with straight hair had a hard time of it when they grew up and tried to produce glorious wavy masses out of limp, thin strands. At night Meggie slept with her almost knee-length locks twisted painfully around bits of old white sheet torn into long strips, and each morning she had to clamber up on the stool while Fee undid the rags and brushed her curls in.
Fee used an old Mason Pearson hairbrush, taking one long, scraggly curl in her left hand and expertly brushing the hair around her index finger until the entire length of it was rolled into a shining thick sausage; then she carefully withdrew her finger from the center of the roll and shook it out into a long, enviably thick curl. This maneuver was repeated some twelve times, the front curls were then drawn together on Meggie’s crown with a freshly ironed white taffeta bow, and she was ready for the day. All the other little girls wore braids to school, saving curls for special occasions, but on this one point Fee was adamant; Meggie should have curls all the time, no matter how hard it was to spare the minutes each morning. Had Fee realized it, her charity was misguided, for her daughter’s hair was far and away the most beautiful in the entire school. To rub the fact in with daily curls earned Meggie much envy and loathing.
The process hurt, but Meggie was too used to it to notice, never remembering a time when it had not been done. Fee’s muscular arm yanked the brush ruthlessly through knots and tangles until Meggie’s eyes watered and she had to hang on to the stool with both hands to keep from falling off. It was the Monday of the last week at school, and her birthday was only two days away; she clung to the stool and dreamed about the willow pattern tea set, knowing it for a dream. There was one in the Wahine general store, and she knew enough of prices to realize that its cost put it far beyond her father’s slender means.
Suddenly Fee made a sound, so peculiar it jerked Meggie out of her musing and made the menfolk still seated at the breakfast table turn their heads curiously.
“Holy Jesus Christ!” said Fee.
Paddy jumped to his feet, his face stupefied; he had never heard Fee take the name of the Lord in vain before. She was standing with one of Meggie’s curls in her hand, the brush poised, her features twisted into an expression of horror and revulsion. Paddy and the boys crowded round; Meggie tried to see what was going on and earned a backhanded slap with the bristle side of the brush which made her eyes water.
“Look!” Fee whispered, holding the curl in a ray of sunlight so Paddy could see.
The hair was a mass of brilliant, glittering gold in the sun, and Paddy saw nothing at first. Then he became aware that a creature was marching down the back of Fee’s hand. He took a curl for himself, and in among the leaping lights of it he discerned more creatures, going about their business busily. Little white things were stuck in clumps all along the separate strands, and the creatures were energetically producing more clumps of little white things. Meggie’s hair was a hive of industry.
“She’s got lice!” Paddy said.
Bob, Jack, Hughie and Stu had a look, and like their father removed themselves to a safe distance; only Frank and Fee remained gazing at Meggie’s hair, mesmerized, while Meggie sat miserably hunched over, wondering what she had done. Paddy sat down in his Windsor chair heavily, staring into the fire and blinking hard.
“It’s that bloody Dago girl!” he said at last, and turned to glare at Fee. “Bloody bastards, filthy lot of flaming pigs!”
“Paddy!” Fee gasped, scandalized.
“I’m sorry for swearing, Mum, but when I think of that blasted Dago giving her lice to Meggie, I could go into Wahine this minute and tear the whole filthy greasy café down!” he exploded, pounding his fist on his knee fiercely.
“Mum, what is it?” Meggie finally managed to say.
“Look, you dirty little grub!” her mother answered, thrusting her hand down in front of Meggie’s eyes. “You have these things everywhere in your hair, from that Eyetie girl you’re so thick with! Now what am I going to do with you?”
Meggie gaped at the tiny thing roaming blindly round Fee’s bare skin in search of more hirsute territory, then she began to weep.
Without needing to be told, Frank got the copper going while Paddy paced up and down the kitchen roaring, his rage increasing every time he looked at Meggie. Finally he went to the row of hooks on the wall inside the back door, jammed his hat on his head and took the long horsewhip from its nail.
“I’m going into Wahine, Fee, and I’m going to tell that blasted Dago what he can do with his slimy fish and chips! Then I’m going to see Sister Agatha and tell her what I think of her, allowing lousy children in her school!”
“Paddy, be careful!” Fee pleaded. “What if it isn’t the Eyetie girl? Even if she has lice, it’s possible she might have got them from someone else along with Meggie.”
“Rot!” said Paddy scornfully. He pounded down the back steps, and a few minutes later they heard his roan’s hoofs beating down the road. Fee sighed, looking at Frank hopelessly.
“Well, I suppose we’ll be lucky if he doesn’t land in jail. Frank, you’d better bring the boys inside. No school today.”
One by one Fee went through her sons’ hair minutely, then checked Frank’s head and made him do the same for her. There was no evidence that anyone else had acquired poor Meggie’s malady, but Fee did not intend to take chances. When the water in the huge laundry copper was boiling, Frank got the dish tub down from its hanging and filled it half with hot water and half with cold. Then he went out to the shed and fetched in an unopened five-gallon can of kerosene, took a bar of lye soap from the laundry and started work on Bob. Each head was briefly damped in the tub, several cups of raw kerosene poured over it, and the whole draggled, greasy mess lathered with soap. The kerosene and lye burned; the boys howled and rubbed their eyes raw, scratching at their reddened, tingling scalps and threatening ghastly vengeance on all Dagos.
Fee went to her sewing basket and took out her big shears. She came back to Meggie, who had not dared to move from the stool though an hour and more had elapsed, and stood with the shears in her hand, staring at the beautiful fall of hair. Then she began to cut it—snip! snip!—untill all the long curls were huddled in glistening heaps on the floor and Meggie’s white skin was beginning to show in irregular patches all over her head. Doubt in her eyes, she turned then to Frank.
“Ought I to shave it?” she asked, tight-lipped.
Frank put out his hand, revolted. “Oh, Mum, no! Surely not! If she gets a good douse of kerosene it ought to be enough. Please don’t shave it!”
So Meggie was marched to the worktable and held over the tub while they poured cup after cup of kerosene over her head and scrubbed the corrosive soap through what was left of her hair. When they were finally satisfied, she was almost blind from screwing up her eyes against the bite of the caustic, and little rows of blisters had risen all over her face and scalp. Frank swept the fallen curls into a sheet of paper and thrust it into the copper fire, then took the broom and stood it in a panful of kerosene. He and Fee both washed their hair, gasping as the lye seared their skins, then Frank got out a bucket and scrubbed the kitchen floor with sheep-dip.
When the kitchen was as sterile as a hospital they went through to the bedrooms, stripped every sheet and blanket from every bed, and spent the rest of the day boiling, wringing and pegging out the family linen. The mattresses and pillows were draped over the back fence and sprayed with kerosene, the parlor rugs were beaten within an inch of their lives. All the boys were put to helping, only Meggie exempted because she was in absolute disgrace. She crawled away behind the barn and cried. Her head throbbed with pain from the scrubbing, the burns and the blisters; and she was so bitterly ashamed that she would not even look at Frank when he came to find her, nor could he persuade her to come inside.
In the end he had to drag her into the house by brute force, kicking and fighting, and she had pushed herself into a corner when Paddy came back from Wahine in the late afternoon. He took one look at Meggie’s shorn head and burst into tears, sitting rocking himself in the Windsor chair with his hands over his face, while the family stood shuffling their feet and wishing they were anywhere but where they were. Fee made a pot of tea and poured Paddy a cup as he began to recover.
“What happened in Wahine?” she asked. “You were gone an awful long time.”
“I took the horsewhip to that blasted Dago and threw him into the horse trough, for one thing. Then I noticed MacLeod standing outside his shop watching, so I told him what had happened. MacLeod mustered some of the chaps at the pub and we threw the whole lot of those Dagos into the horse trough, women too, and tipped a few gallons of sheep-dip into it. Then I went down to the school and saw Sister Agatha, and I tell you, she was fit to be tied that she hadn’t noticed anything. She hauled the Dago girl out of her desk to look in her hair, and sure enough, lice all over the place. So she sent the girl home and told her not to come back until her head was clean. I left her and Sister Declan and Sister Catherine looking through every head in the school, and there turned out to be a lot of lousy ones. Those three nuns were scratching themselves like mad when they thought no one was watching.” He grinned at the memory, then he saw Meggie’s head again and sobered. He stared at her grimly. “As for you, young lady, no more Dagos or anyone except your brothers. If they aren’t good enough for you, too bad. Bob, I’m telling you that Meggie’s to have nothing to do with anyone except you and the boys while she’s at school, do you hear?”
Bob nodded. “Yes, Daddy.”
The next morning Meggie was horrified to discover that she was expected to go to school as usual.
“No, no, I can’t go!” she moaned, her hands clutching at her head. “Mum, Mum, I can’t go to school like this, not with Sister Agatha!”
“Oh, yes, you can,” her mother replied, ignoring Frank’s imploring looks. “It’ll teach you a lesson.”
So off to school went Meggie, her feet dragging and her head done up in a brown bandanna. Sister Agatha ignored her entirely, but at playtime the other girls caught her and tore her scarf away to see what she looked like. Her face was only mildly disfigured, but her head when uncovered was a horrible sight, oozing and angry. The moment he saw what was going on Bob came over, and took his sister away into a secluded corner of the cricket pitch.
“Don’t you take any notice of them, Meggie,” he said roughly, tying the scarf around her head awkwardly and patting her stiff shoulders. “Spiteful little cats! I wish I’d thought to catch some of those things out of your head; I’m sure they’d keep. The minute everyone forgot, I’d sprinkle a few heads with a new lot.”
The other Cleary boys gathered around, and they sat guarding Meggie until the bell rang.
Teresa Annunzio came to school briefly at lunchtime, her head shaven. She tried to attack Meggie, but the boys held her off easily. As she backed away she flung her right arm up in the air, its fist clenched, and slapped her left hand on its biceps in a fascinating, mysterious gesture no one understood, but which the boys avidly filed away for future use.
“I hate you!” Teresa screamed. “Me dad’s got to move out of the district because of what your dad did to him!” She turned and ran from the playground, howling.
Meggie held her head up and kept her eyes dry. She was learning. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought, it didn’t, it didn’t! The other girls avoided her, half because they were frightened of Bob and Jack, half because the word had got around their parents and they had been instructed to keep away; being thick with the Clearys usually meant trouble of some kind. So Meggie passed the last few days of school “in Coventry,” as they called it, which meant she was totally ostracized. Even Sister Agatha respected the new policy, and took her rages out on Stuart instead.
As were all birthdays among the little ones if they fell on a school day, Meggie’s birthday celebration was delayed until Saturday, when she received the longed-for willow pattern tea set. It was arranged on a beautifully crafted ultramarine table and chairs made in Frank’s nonexistent spare time, and Agnes was seated on one of the two tiny chairs wearing a new blue dress made in Fee’s nonexistent spare time. Meggie stared dismally at the blue-and-white designs gamboling all around each small piece; at the fantastic trees with their funny puffy blossoms, at the ornate little pagoda, at the strangely stilled pair of birds and the minute figures eternally fleeing across the kinky bridge. It had lost every bit of its enchantment. But dimly she understood why the family had beggared itself to get her the thing they thought dearest to her heart. So she dutifully made tea for Agnes in the tiny square teapot and went through the ritual as if in ecstasy. And she continued doggedly to use it for years, never breaking or so much as chipping a single piece. No one ever dreamed that she loathed the willow pattern tea set, the blue table and chairs, and Agnes’s blue dress.
Two days before that Christmas of 1917 Paddy brought home his weekly newspaper and a new stack of books from the library. However, the paper for once took precedence over the books. Its editors had conceived a novel idea based on the fancy American magazines which very occasionally found their way to New Zealand; the entire middle section was a feature on the war. There were blurred photographs of the Anzacs storming the pitiless cliffs at Gallipoli, long articles extolling the bravery of the Antipodean soldier, features on all the Australian and New Zealand winners of the Victoria Cross since its inception, and a magnificent full-page etching of an Australian light horse cavalry-man mounted on his charger, saber at the ready and long silky feathers pluming from under the turned-up side of his slouch hat.
At first opportunity Frank seized the paper and read the feature hungrily, drinking in its jingoistic prose, his eyes glowing eerily.
“Daddy, I want to go!” he said as he laid the paper down reverently on the table.
Fee’s head jerked around as she slopped stew all over the top of the stove, and Paddy stiffened in his Windsor chair, his book forgotten.
“You’re too young, Frank,” he said.
“No, I’m not! I’m seventeen, Daddy, I’m a man! Why should the Huns and Turks slaughter our men like pigs while I’m sitting here safe and sound? It’s more than time a Cleary did his bit.”
“You’re under age, Frank, they won’t take you.”
“They will if you don’t object,” Frank countered quickly, his dark eyes fixed on Paddy’s face.
“But I do object. You’re the only one working at the moment and we need the money you bring in, you know that.”
“But I’ll be paid in the army!”
Paddy laughed. “The ‘soldier’s shilling’ eh? Being a blacksmith in Wahine pays a lot better than being a soldier in Europe.”
“But I’ll be over there, maybe I’ll get the chance to be something better than a blacksmith! It’s my only way out, Daddy.”
“Nonsense! Good God, boy, you don’t know what you’re saying. War is terrible. I come from a country that’s been at war for a thousand years, so I know what I’m saying. Haven’t you heard the Boer War chaps talking? You go into Wahine often enough, so next time listen. And anyway, it strikes me that the blasted English use Anzacs as fodder for the enemy guns, putting them into places where they don’t want to waste their own precious troops. Look at the way that saber-rattling Churchill sent our men into something as useless as Gallipoli! Ten thousand killed out of fifty thousand! Twice as bad as decimation.
“Why should you go fighting old Mother England’s wars for her? What has she ever done for you, except bleed her colonies white? If you went to England they’d look down their noses at you for being a colonial. En Zed isn’t in any danger, nor is Australia. It might do old Mother England the world of good to be defeated; it’s more than time someone paid her for what she’s done to Ireland. I certainly wouldn’t weep any tears if the Kaiser ended up marching down the Strand.”
“But Daddy, I want to enlist!”
“You can want all you like, Frank, but you aren’t going, so you may as well forget the whole idea. You’re not big enough to be a soldier.”