The Thorn Birds (Chapter 101-105)
The Thorn Birds
by Colleen McCullough
That eventually Frank managed to fit into Drogheda life at all was thanks to Fee, who in the face of stiff male Cleary opposition continued to act as if her oldest son had been gone but a short while, and had never brought disgrace on his family or bitterly hurt his mother. Quietly and inconspicuously she slipped him into the niche he seemed to want to occupy, removed from her other sons; nor did she encourage him to regain some of the vitality of other days. For it had all gone; she had known it the moment he looked at her on the Gilly station platform. Swallowed up by an existence the nature of which he refused to discuss with her. The most she could do for him was to make him as happy as possible, and surely the way to do that was to accept the now Frank as the always Frank.
There was no question of his working the paddocks, for his brothers didn’t want him, nor did he want a kind of life he had always hated. The sight of growing things pleased him, so Fee put him to potter in the homestead gardens, left him in peace. And gradually the Cleary men grew used to having Frank back in the family bosom, began to understand that the threat Frank used to represent to their own welfare was quite empty, Nothing would ever change what their mother felt for him, it didn’t matter whether he was in jail or on Drogheda, she would still feel it. The important thing was that to have him on Drogheda made her happy. He didn’t intrude upon their lives, he was no more or no less than always.
Yet for Fee it wasn’t a joy to have Frank home again; how could it be? Seeing him every day was simply a different kind of sorrow from not being able to see him at all. The terrible grief of having to witness a ruined life, a ruined man. Who was her most beloved son, and must have endured agonies beyond her imagination.
One day after Frank had been home about six months, Meggie came into the drawing room to find her mother sitting looking through the big windows to where Frank was clipping the great bank of roses alongside the drive. She turned away, and something in her calmly arranged face sent Meggie’s hands up to her heart.
“Oh, Mum!” she said helplessly.
Fee looked at her, shook her head and smiled. “It doesn’t matter, Meggie,” she said.
“If only there was something I could do!”
“There is. Just carry on the way you have been. I’m very grateful. You’ve become an ally.”
“Well,” said Justine to her mother, “I’ve decided what I’m going to do.”
“I thought it was already decided. Arts at Sydney University, isn’t that right?”
“Oh, that was just a red herring to lull you into a false sense of security while I made my plans. But now it’s all set, so I can tell you.”
Meggie’s head came up from her task, cutting fir-tree shapes in cookie dough; Mrs. Smith was ill and they were helping out in the cookhouse. She regarded her daughter wearily, impatiently, helplessly. What could one do with someone like Justine? If she announced she was going off to train as a whore in a Sydney bordello, Meggie very much doubted whether she could be turned aside. Dear, horrible Justine, queen among juggernauts.
“Go on, I’m all agog,” she said, and went back to producing cookies.
“I’m going to be an actress.”
“Good Lord!” The fir trees were abandoned again. “Look, Justine, I hate to be a spoilsport and truly I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but do you think you’re—well, quite physically equipped to be an actress?”
“Oh, Mum!” said Justine, disgusted. “Not a film star; an actress! I don’t want to wiggle my hips and stick out my breasts and pout my wet lips! I want to act.” She was pushing chunks of defatted beef into the corning barrel. “I have enough money to support myself during whatever sort of training I choose, isn’t that right?”
“Yes, thanks to Cardinal de Bricassart.”
“Then it’s all settled. I’m going to study acting with Albert Jones at the Culloden Theater, and I’ve written to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, asking that I be put on their waiting list.”
“Are you quite sure, Jussy?”
“Quite sure. I’ve known for a long time.” The last piece of bloody beef was tucked down under the surface of the corning solution; Justine put the lid on the barrel with a thump. “There! I hope I never see another bit of corned beef as long as I live.”
Meggie handed her a completed tray of cookies. “Put these in the oven, would you? Four hundred degrees. I must say this comes as something of a surprise. I thought little girls who wanted to be actresses role-played constantly, but the only person I’ve ever seen you play has been yourself.”
“Oh, Mum! There you go again, confusing film stars with actresses. Honestly, you’re hopeless.”
“Well, aren’t film stars actresses?”
“Of a very inferior sort. Unless they’ve been on the stage first, that is. I mean, even Laurence Olivier does an occasional film.”
There was an autographed picture of Laurence Olivier on Justine’s dressing table; Meggie had simply deemed it juvenile crush stuff, though at the time she remembered thinking at least Justine had taste. The friends she sometimes brought home with her to stay a few days usually treasured pictures of Tab Hunter and Rory Calhoun.
“I still don’t understand,” said Meggie, shaking her head. “An actress!”
Justine shrugged. “Well, where else can I scream and yell and howl but on a stage? I’m not allowed to do any of those here, or at school, or anywhere! I like screaming and yelling and howling, dammit!”
“But you’re so good at art, Jussy! Why not be an artist?” Meggie persevered.
Justine turned from the huge gas stove, flicked her finger against a cylinder gauge. “I must tell the kitchen rouseabout to change bottles; we’re low. It’ll do for today, though.” The light eyes surveyed Meggie with pity. “You’re so impractical, Mum, really. I thought it was supposed to be the children who didn’t stop to consider a career’s practical aspects. Let me tell you, I don’t want to starve to death in a garret and be famous after I’m dead. I want to enjoy a bit of fame while I’m still alive, and be very comfortable financially. So I’ll paint as a hobby and act for a living. How’s that?”
“You’ve got an income from Drogheda, Jussy,” Meggie said desperately, breaking her vow to remain silent no matter what. “It would never come to starving in a garret. If you’d rather paint, it’s all right. You can.”
Justine looked alert, interested. “How much have I got, Mum?”
“Enough that if you preferred, you need never work at anything.”
“What a bore! I’d end up talking on the telephone and playing bridge; at least that’s what the mothers of most of my school friends do. Because I’d be living in Sydney, not on Drogheda. I like Sydney much better than Drogheda.” A gleam of hope entered her eye. “Do I have enough to pay to have my freckles removed with this new electrical treatment?”
“I should think so. But why?”
“Because then someone might see my face, that’s why.”
“I thought looks didn’t matter to an actress?”
“Enough’s enough, Mum. My freckles are a pain.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather be an artist?”
“Quite sure, thank you.” She did a little dance. “I’m going to tread the boards, Mrs. Worthington!”
“How did you get yourself into the Culloden?”
“And they took you?”
“Your faith in your daughter is touching, Mum. Of course they took me! I’m superb, you know. One day I shall be very famous.”
Meggie beat green food coloring into a bowl of runny icing and began to drizzle it over already baked fir trees. “Is it important to you, Justine? Fame?”
“I should say so.” She tipped sugar in on top of butter so soft it had molded itself to the inner contours of the bowl; in spite of the gas stove instead of the wood stove, the cookhouse was very hot. “I’m absolutely iron-bound determined to be famous.”
“Don’t you want to get married?”
Justine looked scornful. “Not bloody likely! Spend my life wiping snotty noses and cacky bums? Salaaming to some man not half my equal even though he thinks he’s better? Ho ho ho, not me!”
“Honestly, you’re the dizzy limit! Where do you pick up your language?”
Justine began cracking eggs rapidly and deftly into a basin, using one hand. “At my exclusive ladies’ college, of course.” She drubbed the eggs unmercifully with a French whisk. “We were quite a decent bunch of girls, actually. Very cultured. It isn’t every gaggle of silly adolescent females can appreciate the delicacy of a Latin limerick:
There was a Roman from Vinidium
Whose shirt was made of iridium;
When asked why the vest,
He replied, “Id est
Bonum sanguinem praesidium.”
Meggie’s lips twitched. “I’m going to hate myself for asking, but what did the Roman say?”
“ ‘It’s a bloody good protection.’ ”
“Is that all? I thought it was going to be a lot worse. You surprise me. But getting back to what we were saying, dear girl, in spite of your neat effort to change the subject, what’s wrong with marriage?”
Justine imitated her grandmother’s rare snort of ironic laughter. “Mum! Really! You’re a fine one to ask that, I must say.”
Meggie felt the blood well up under her skin, and looked down at the tray of bright-green trees. “Don’t be impertinent, even if you are a ripe old seventeen.”
“Isn’t it odd?” Justine asked the mixing bowl. “The minute one ventures onto strictly parental territory, one becomes impertinent. I just said: You’re a fine one to ask. Perfectly true, dammit! I’m not necessarily implying you’re a failure, or a sinner, or worse. Actually I think you’ve shown remarkable good sense, dispensing with your husband. What have you needed one for? There’s been tons of male influence for your children with the Unks around, you’ve got enough money to live on. I agree with you! Marriage is for the birds.”
“You’re just like your father!”
“Another evasion. Whenever I displease you, I become just like my father. Well, I’ll have to take your word for that, since I’ve never laid eyes on the gentleman.”
“When are you leaving?” Meggie asked desperately.
Justine grinned. “Can’t wait to get rid of me, eh? It’s all right, Mum, I don’t blame you in the least. But I can’t help it, I just love shocking people, especially you. How about taking me into the ‘drome tomorrow?”
“Make it the day after. Tomorrow I’ll take you to the bank. You’d better know how much you’ve got. And, Justine…”
Justine was adding flour and folding expertly, but she looked up at the change in her mother’s voice. “Yes?”
“If ever you’re in trouble, come home, please. We’ve always got room for you on Drogheda, I want you to remember that. Nothing you could ever do would be so bad you couldn’t come home.”
Justine’s gaze softened. “Thanks, Mum. You’re not a bad old stick underneath, are you?”
“Old?” gasped Meggie. “I am not old! I’m only forty-three!”
“Good Lord, as much as that?”
Meggie hurled a cookie and hit Justine on the nose. “Oh, you wretch!” she laughed. “What a monster you are! Now I feel like a hundred.”
Her daughter grinned.
At which moment Fee walked in to see how things in the cookhouse were going; Meggie hailed her arrival with relief.
“Mum, do you know what Justine just told me?”
Fee’s eyes were no longer up to anything beyond the uttermost effort of keeping the books, but the mind at back of those smudged pupils was as acute as ever.
“How could I possibly know what Justine just told you?” she inquired mildly, regarding the green cookies with a slight shudder.
“Because sometimes it strikes me that you and Jussy have little secrets from me, and now, the moment my daughter finishes telling me her news, in you walk when you never do.”
“Mmmmmm, at least they taste better than they look,” commented Fee, nibbling. “I assure you, Meggie, I don’t encourage your daughter to conspire with me behind your back. What have you done to upset the applecart now, Justine?” she asked, turning to where Justine was pouring her sponge mixture into greased and floured tins.
“I told Mum I was going to be an actress, Nanna, that’s all.”
“That’s all, eh? Is it true, or only one of your dubious jokes?”
“Oh, it’s true. I’m starting at the Culloden.”
“Well, well, well!” said Fee, leaning against the table and surveying her own daughter ironically. “Isn’t it amazing how chidren have minds of their own, Meggie?”
Meggie didn’t answer.
“Do you disapprove, Nanna?” Justine growled, ready to do battle.
“I? Disapprove? It’s none of my business what you do with your life, Justine. Besides, I think you’ll make a good actress.”
“You do?” gasped Meggie.
“Of course she will,” said Fee. “Justine’s not the sort to choose unwisely, are you, my girl?”
“No.” Justine grinned, pushing a damp curl out of her eye. Meggie watched her regarding her grandmother with an affection she never seemed to extend to her mother.
“You’re a good girl, Justine,” Fee pronounced, and finished the cookie she had started so unenthusiastically. “Not bad at all, but I wish you’d iced them in white.”
“You can’t ice trees in white,” Meggie contradicted.
“Of course you can when they’re firs; it might be snow,” her mother said.
“Too late now, they’re vomit green,” laughed Justine.
“Ooops! Sorry, Mum, didn’t mean to offend you. I always forget you’ve got a weak stomach.”
“I haven’t got a weak stomach,” said Meggie, exasperated.
“I came to see if there was any chance of a cuppa,” Fee broke in, pulling out a chair and sitting down. “Put on the kettle, Justine, like a good girl.”
Meggie sat down, too. “Do you really think this will work out for Justine, Mum?” she asked anxiously.
“Why shouldn’t it?” Fee answered, watching her granddaughter attending to the tea ritual.
“It might be a passing phase.”
“Is it a passing phase, Justine?” Fee asked.
“No,” Justine said tersely, putting cups and saucers on the old green kitchen table.
“Use a plate for the biscuits, Justine, don’t put them out in their barrel,” said Meggie automatically, “and for pity’s sake don’t dump the whole milk can on the table, put some in a proper afternoon tea jug.”
“Yes, Mum, sorry, Mum,” Justine responded, equally mechanically. “Can’t see the point of frills in the kitchen. All I’ve got to do is put whatever isn’t eaten back where it came from, and wash up a couple of extra dishes.”
“Just do as you’re told; it’s so much nicer.”
“Getting back to the subject,” Fee pursued, “I don’t think there’s anything to discuss. It’s my opinion that Justine ought to be allowed to try, and will probably do very well.”
“I wish I could be so sure,” said Meggie glumly.
“Have you been on about fame and glory, Justine?” her grandmother demanded.
“They enter the picture,” said Justine, putting the old brown kitchen teapot on the table defiantly and sitting down in a hurry. “Now don’t complain, Mum; I’m not making tea in a silver pot for the kitchen and that’s final.”
“The teapot is perfectly appropriate.” Meggie smiled.
“Oh, that’s good! There’s nothing like a nice cup of tea,” sighed Fee, sipping. “Justine, why do you persist in putting things to your mother so badly? You know it isn’t a question of fame and fortune. It’s a question of self, isn’t it?”
“Of course. Self. Acting is what you feel you were meant to do, isn’t that right?”
“Then why couldn’t you have explained it so to your mother? Why upset her with a lot of flippant nonsense?”
Justine shrugged, drank her tea down and pushed the empty cup toward her mother for more. “Dunno,” she said.
“I-dont-know,” Fee corrected. “You’ll articulate properly on the stage, I trust. But self is why you want to be an actress, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so,” answered Justine reluctantly.
“Oh, that stubborn, pigheaded Cleary pride! It will be your downfall, too, Justine, unless you learn to rule it. That stupid fear of being laughed at, or held up to some sort of ridicule. Though why you think your mother would be so cruel I don’t know.” She tapped Justine on the back of her hand. “Give a little, Justine; cooperate.”
But Justine shook her head and said, “I can’t.”
Fee sighed. “Well, for what earthly good it will do you, child, you have my blessing on your enterprise.”
“Ta, Nanna, I appreciate it.”
“Then kindly show your appreciation in a concrete fashion by finding your uncle Frank and telling him there’s tea in the kitchen, please.”
Justine went off, and Meggie stared at Fee.
“Mum, you’re amazing, you really are.”
Fee smiled. “Well, you have to admit I never tried to tell any of my children what to do.”
“No, you never did,” said Meggie tenderly. “We did appreciate it, too.”
The first thing Justine did when she arrived back in Sydney was begin to have her freckles removed. Not a quick process, unfortunately; she had so many it would take about twelve months, and then she would have to stay out of the sun for the rest of her life, or they would come back. The second thing she did was to find herself an apartment, no mean feat in Sydney at that time, when people built, private homes and regarded living en masse in buildings as anathema. But eventually she found a two-room flat in Neutral Bay, in one of the huge old waterside Victorian mansions which had fallen on hard times and been made over into dingy semi-apartments. The rent was five pounds ten shillings a week, outrageous considering that the bathroom and kitchen were communal, shared by all the tenants. However, Justine was quite satisfied. Though she had been well trained domestically, she had few homemaker instincts.
Living in Bothwell Gardens was more fascinating than her acting apprenticeship at the Culloden, where life seemed to consist in skulking behind scenery and watching other people rehearse, getting an occasional walk-on, memorizing masses of Shakespeare, Shaw and Sheridan.
Including Justine’s, Bothwell Gardens had six flats, plus Mrs. Devine the landlady. Mrs. Devine was a sixty-five-year-old Londoner with a doleful sniff, protruding eyes and a great contempt for Australia and Australians, though she wasn’t above robbing them. Her chief concern in life seemed to be how much gas and electricty cost, and her chief weakness was Justine’s next-door neighbor, a young Englishman who exploited his nationality cheerfully.
“I don’t mind giving the old duck an occasional tickle while we reminisce,” he told Justine. “Keeps her off my back, you know. You girls aren’t allowed to run electric radiators even in winter, but I was given one and I’m allowed to run it all summer as well if I feel like it.”
“Pig,” said Justine dispassionately.
His name was Peter Wilkins, and he was a traveling salesman. “Come in and I’ll make you a nice cuppa sometime,” he called after her, rather taken with those pale, intriguing eyes.
Justine did, careful not to choose a time when Mrs. Devine was lurking jealously about, and got quite used to fighting Peter off. The years of riding and working on Drogheda had endowed her with considerable strength, and she was untroubled by shibboleths like hitting below the belt.
“God damn you, Justine!” gasped Peter, wiping the tears of pain from his eyes. “Give in, girl! You’ve got to lose it sometime, you know! This isn’t Victorian England, you aren’t expected to save it for marriage.”
“I have no intention of saving it for marriage,” she answered, adjusting her dress. “I’m just not sure who’s going to get the honor, that’s all.”
“You’re nothing to write home about!” he snapped nastily; she had really hurt.
“No, that I’m not. Sticks and stones, Pete. You can’t hurt me with words. And there are plenty of men who will shag anything if it’s a virgin.”
“Plenty of women, too! Watch the front flat.”
“Oh, I do, I do,” said Justine.
The two girls in the front flat were lesbians, and had hailed Justine’s advent gleefully until they realized she not only wasn’t interested, she wasn’t even intrigued. At first she wasn’t quite sure what they were hinting at, but after they spelled it out baldly she shrugged her shoulders, unimpressed. Thus after a period of adjustment she became their sounding board, their neutral confidante, their port in all storms; she bailed Billie out of jail, took Bobbie to the Mater hospital to have her stomach pumped out after a particularly bad quarrel with Billie, refused to take sides with either of them when Pat, Al, Georgie and Ronnie hove in turns on the horizon. It did seem a very insecure kind of emotional life, she thought. Men were bad enough, but at least they had the spice of intrinsic difference.
So between the Culloden and Bothwell Gardens and girls she had known from Kincoppal days, Justine had quite a lot of friends, and was a good friend herself. She never told them all her troubles as they did her; she had Dane for that, though what few troubles she admitted to having didn’t appear to prey upon her. The thing which fascinated her friends the most about her was her extraordinary self-discipline; as if she had trained herself from infancy not to let circumstances affect her well-being.
Of chief interest to everyone called a friend was how, when and with whom Justine would finally decide to become a fulfilled woman, but she took her time.
Arthur Lestrange was Albert Jones’s most durable juvenile lead, though he had wistfully waved goodbye to his fortieth birthday the year before Justine arrived at the Culloden. He had a good body, was a steady, reliable actor and his clean-cut, manly face with its surround of yellow curls was always sure to evoke audience applause. For the first year he didn’t notice Justine, who was very quiet and did exactly as she was told. But at the end of the year her freckle treatments were finished, and she began to stand out against the scenery instead of blending into it.
Minus the freckles and plus makeup to darken her brows and lashes, she was a good-looking girl in an elfin, understated way. She had none of Luke O’Neill’s arresting beauty, or her mother’s exquisiteness. Her figure was passable though not spectacular, a trifle on the thin side. Only the vivid red hair ever stood out. But on a stage she was quite different; she could make people think she was as beautiful as Helen of Troy or as ugly as a witch.
Arthur first noticed her during a teaching period, when she was required to recite a passage from Conrad’s Lord Jim using various accents. She was extraordinary, really; he could feel the excitement in Albert Jones, and finally understood why Al devoted so much time to her. A born mimic, but far more than that; she gave character to every word she said. And there was the voice, a wonderful natural endowment for any actress, deep, husky, penetrating.
So when he saw her with a cup of tea in her hand, sitting with a book open on her knees, he came to sit beside her.
“What are you reading?”
She looked up, smiled. “Proust.”
“Don’t you find him a little dull?”
“Proust dull? Not unless one doesn’t care for gossip, surely. That’s what he is, you know. A terrible old gossip.”
He had an uncomfortable conviction that she was intellectually patronizing him, but he forgave her. No more than extreme youth.
“I heard you doing the Conrad. Splendid.”
“Perhaps we could have coffee together sometime and discuss your plans”
“If you like,” she said, returning to Proust.
He was glad he had stipulated coffee, rather than dinner; his wife kept him on short commons, and dinner demanded a degree of gratitude he couldn’t be sure Justine was ready to manifest. However, he followed his casual invitation up, and bore her off to a dark little place in lower Elizabeth Street, where he was reasonably sure his wife wouldn’t think of looking for him.
In self-defense Justine had learned to smoke, tired of always appearing goody-goody in refusing offered cigarettes. After they were seated she took her own cigarettes out of her bag, a new pack, and peeled the top cellophane from the flip-top box carefully, making sure the larger piece of cellophane still sheathed the bulk of the packet. Arthur watched her deliberateness, amused and interested.
“Why on earth go to so much trouble? Just rip it all off, Justine.”
He picked up the box and stroked its intact shroud reflectively. “Now, if I was a disciple of the eminent Sigmund Freud…”
“If you were Freud, what?” She glanced up, saw the waitress standing beside her. “Cappuccino, please.”
It annoyed him that she gave her own order, but he let it pass, more intent on pursuing the thought in his mind. “Vienna, please. Now, getting back to what I was saying about Freud. I wonder what he’d think of this? He might say…”
She took the packet off him, opened it, removed a cigarette and lit it herself without giving him time to find his matches. “Well?”
“He’d think you liked to keep membranous substances intact, wouldn’t he?”
Her laughter gurgled through the smoky air, caused several male heads to turn curiously. “Would he now? Is that a roundabout way of asking me if I’m still a virgin, Arthur?”
He clicked his tonque, exasperated. “Justine! I can see that among other things I’ll have to teach you the fine art of prevarication.”
“Among what other things, Arthur?” She leaned her elbows on the table, eyes gleaming in the dimness.
“Well, what do you need to learn?”
“I’m pretty well educated, actually.”
“Heavens, you do know how to emphasize words, don’t you? Very good, I must remember how you said that.”
“There are things which can only be learned from firsthand experience,” he said softly, reaching out a hand to tuck a curl behind her ear.
“Really? I’ve always found observation adequate.”
“Ah, but what about when it comes to love?” He put a delicate deepness into the word. “How can you play Juliet without knowing what love is?”
“A good point. I agree with you.”
“Have you ever been in love?”
“Do you know anything about love?” This time he put the vocal force on “anything,” rather than “love.”
“Nothing at all.”
“Ah! Then Freud would have been right, eh?”
She picked up her cigarettes and looked at their sheathed box, smiling. “In some things, perhaps.”
Quickly he grasped the bottom of the cellophane, pulled it off and held it in his hand, dramatically crushed it and dropped it in the ashtray, where it squeaked and writhed, expanded. “I’d like to teach you what being a woman is, if I may.”
For a moment she said nothing, intent on the antics of the cellophane in the ashtray, then she struck a match and carefully set fire to it. “Why not?” she asked the brief flare. “Yes, why not?”
“Shall it be a divine thing of moonlight and roses, passionate wooing, or shall it be short and sharp, like an arrow?” he declaimed, hand on heart.
She laughed. “Really, Arthur! I hope it’s long and sharp, myself. But no moonlight and roses, please. My stomach’s not built for passionate wooing.”
He stared at her a little sadly, shook his head. “Oh, Justine! Everyone’s stomach is built for passionate wooing—even yours, you cold-blooded young vestal. One day, you wait and see. You’ll long for it.”
“Pooh!” She got up. “Come on, Arthur, let’s get the deed over and done with before I change my mind.”
“Why on earth not? I’ve got plenty of money for a hotel room, if you’re short.”
The Hotel Metropole wasn’t far away; they walked through the drowsing streets with her arm tucked cozily in his, laughing. It was too late for diners and too early for the theaters to be out, so there were few people around, just knots of American sailors off a visiting task force, and groups of young girls window-shopping with an eye to sailors. No one took any notice of them, which suited Arthur fine. He popped into a chemist shop while Justine waited outside, emerged beaming happily.
“Now we’re all set, my love.”
“What did you buy? French letters?”
He grimaced. “I should hope not. A French letter is like coming wrapped in a page of the Reader’s Digest—condensed tackiness. No, I got you some jelly. How do you know about French letters, anyway?”
“After seven years in a Catholic boarding school? What do you think we did? Prayed?” She grinned. “I admit we didn’t do much, but we talked about everything.”
Mr. and Mrs. Smith surveyed their kingdom, which wasn’t bad for a Sydney hotel room of that era. The days of the Hilton were still to come. It was very large, and had superb views of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. There was no bathroom, of course, but there was a basin and ewer on a marble-topped stand, a fitting accompaniment to the enormous Victorian relics of furniture.
“Well, what do I do now?” she asked, pulling the curtains back. “It’s a beautiful view, isn’t it?”
“Yes. As to what you do now, you take your pants off, of course.”
“Anything else?” she asked mischievously.
He sighed. “Take it all off, Justine! If you don’t feel skin with skin it isn’t nearly so good.”
Neatly and briskly she got out of her clothes, not a scrap coyly, clambered up on the bed and spread her legs apart. “Is this right, Arthur?”
“Good Lord!” he said, folding his trousers carefully; his wife always looked to see if they were crushed.
“What? What’s the matter?”
“You really are a redhead, aren’t you?”
“What did you expect, purple feathers?”
“Facetiousness doesn’t set the right mood, darling, so stop it this instant.” He sucked in his belly, turned, strutted to the bed and climbed onto it, began dropping expert little kisses down the side of her face, her neck, over her left breast. “Mmmmmm, you’re nice.” His arms went around her. “There! Isn’t this nice?”
“I suppose so. Yes, it is quite nice.”
Silence fell, broken only by the sound of kisses, occasional murmurs. There was a huge old dressing table at the far end of the bed, its mirror still tilted to reflect love’s arena by some erotically minded previous tenant.
“Put out the light, Arthur.”
“Darling, no! Lesson number one. There’s no aspect of love which won’t bear the light.”
Having done the preparatory work with his fingers and deposited the jelly where it was supposed to be, Arthur managed to get himself between Justine’s legs. A bit sore but quite comfortable, if not lifted into ecstasy at least feeling rather motherly, Justine looked over Arthur’s shoulder and straight down the bed into the mirror.
Foreshortened, their legs looked weird with his darkly matted ones sandwiched between her smooth defreckled ones; however, the bulk of the image in the mirror consisted of Arthur’s buttocks, and as he maneuvered they spread and contracted, hopped up and down, with two quiffs of yellow hair like Dagwood’s just poking above the twin globes and waving at her cheerfully.
Justine looked; looked again. She stuffed her fist against her mouth wildly, gurgling and moaning.
“There, there, my darling, it’s all right! I’ve broken you already, so it can’t hurt too much,” he whispered.
Her chest began to heave; he wrapped his arms closer about her and murmured inarticulate endearments.
Suddenly her head went back, her mouth opened in a long, agonized wail, and became peal after peal of uproarious laughter. And the more limply furious he got, the harder she laughed, pointing her finger helplessly toward the foot of the bed, tears streaming down her face. Her whole body was convulsed, but not quite in the manner poor Arthur had envisioned.
In many ways Justine was a lot closer to Dane than their mother was, and what they felt for Mum belonged to Mum. It didn’t impinge upon or clash with what they felt for each other. That had been forged very early, and had grown rather than diminished. By the time Mum was freed from her Drogheda bondage they were old enough to be at Mrs. Smith’s kitchen table, doing their correspondence lessons; the habit of finding solace in each other had been established for all time.
Though they were very dissimilar in character, they also shared many tastes and appetites, and those they didn’t share they tolerated in each other with instinctive respect, as a necessary spice of difference. They knew each other very well indeed. Her natural tendency was to deplore human failings in others and ignore them in herself; his natural tendency was to understand and forgive human failings in others, and be merciless upon them in himself. She felt herself invincibly strong; he knew himself perilously weak.
And somehow it all came together as a nearly perfect friendship, in the name of which nothing was impossible. However, since Justine was by far the more talkative, Dane always got to hear a lot more about her and what she was feeling than the other way around. In some respects she was a little bit of a moral imbecile, in that nothing was sacred, and he understood that his function was to provide her with the scruples she lacked within herself. Thus he accepted his role of passive listener with a tenderness and compassion which would have irked Justine enormously had she suspected them. Not that she ever did; she had been bending his ear about absolutely anything and everything since he was old enough to pay attention.
“Guess what I did last night?” she asked, carefully adjusting her big straw hat so her face and neck were well shaded.
“Acted in your first starring role,” Dane said.
“Prawn! As if I wouldn’t tell you so you could be there to see me. Guess again.”
“Finally copped a punch Bobbie meant for Billie.”
“Cold as a stepmother’s breast.”
He shrugged his shoulders, bored. “Haven’t a clue.”
They were sitting in the Domain on the grass, just below the Gothic bulk of Saint Mary’s Cathedral. Dane had phoned to let Justine know he was coming in for a special ceremony in the cathedral, and could she meet him for a while first in the Dom? Of course she could; she was dying to tell him the latest episode.
Almost finished his last year at Riverview, Dane was captain of the school, captain of the cricket team, the Rugby, handball and tennis teams. And dux of his class into the bargain. At seventeen he was two inches over six feet, his voice had settled into its final baritone, and he had miraculously escaped such afflictions as pimples, clumsiness and a bobbing Adam’s apple. Because he was so fair he wasn’t really shaving yet, but in every other way he looked more like a young man than a schoolboy. Only the Riverview uniform categorized him.
It was a warm, sunny day. Dane removed his straw boater school hat and stretched out on the grass, Justine sitting hunched beside him, her arms about her knees to make sure all exposed skin was shaded. He opened one lazy blue eye in her direction.
“What did you do last night, Jus?”
“I lost my virginity. At least I think I did.”
Both his eyes opened. “You’re a prawn.”
“Pooh! High time, I say. How can I hope to be a good actress if I don’t have a clue what goes on between men and women?”
“You ought to save yourself for the man you marry.”
Her face twisted in exasperation. “Honestly, Dane, sometimes you’re so archaic I’m embarrassed! Suppose I don’t meet the man I marry until I’m forty? What do you expect me to do? Sit on it all those years? Is that what you’re going to do, save it for marriage?”
“I don’t think I’m going to get married.”
“Well, nor am I. In which case, why tie a blue ribbon around it and stick it in my nonexistent hope chest? I don’t want to die wondering.”
He grinned. “You can’t, now.” Rolling over onto his stomach, he propped his chin on his hand and looked at her steadily, his face soft, concerned. “Was it all right? I mean, was it awful? Did you hate it?”
Her lips twitched, remembering. “I didn’t hate it, at any rate. It wasn’t awful, either. On the other hand, I’m afraid I don’t see what everyone raves about. Pleasant is as far as I’m prepared to go. And it isn’t as if I chose just anyone; I selected someone very attractive and old enough to know what he was doing.”
He sighed. “You are a prawn, Justine. I’d have been a lot happier to hear you say, ‘He’s not much to look at, but we met and I couldn’t help myself.’ I can accept that you don’t want to wait until you’re married, but it’s still something you’ve got to want because of the person. Never because of the act, Jus. I’m not surprised you weren’t ecstatic.”
All the gleeful triumph faded from her face. “Oh, damn you, now you’ve made me feel awful! If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were trying to put me down—or my motives, at any rate.”
“But you do know me better, don’t you? I’d never put you down, but sometimes your motives are plain thoughtlessly silly.” He adopted a tolling, monotonous voice. “I am the voice of your conscience, Justine O’Neill.”
“You are, too, you prawn.” Shade forgotten, she flopped back on the grass beside him so he couldn’t see her face. “Look, you know why. Don’t you?”
“Oh, Jussy,” he said sadly, but whatever he was going to add was lost, for she spoke again, a little savagely.
“I’m never, never, never going to love anyone! If you love people, they kill you. If you need people, they kill you. They do, I tell you!”
It always hurt him, that she felt left out of love, and hurt more that he knew himself the cause. If there was one overriding reason why she was so important to him, it was because she loved him enough to bear no grudges, had never made him feel a moment’s lessening of her love through jealousy or resentment. To him, it was a cruel fact that she moved on an outer circle while he was the very hub. He had prayed and prayed things would change, but they never did. Which hadn’t lessened his faith, only pointed out to him with fresh emphasis that somewhere, sometime, he would have to pay for the emotion squandered on him at her expense. She put a good face on it, had managed to convince even herself that she did very well on that outer orbit, but he felt her pain. He knew. There was so much worth loving in her, so little worth loving in himself. Without a hope of understanding differently, he assumed he had the lion’s share of love because of his beauty, his more tractable nature, his ability to communicate with his mother and the other Drogheda people. And because he was male. Very little escaped him beyond what he simply couldn’t know, and he had had Justine’s confidence and companionship in ways no one else ever had. Mum mattered to Justine far more than she would admit.
But I will atone, he thought. I’ve had everything. Somehow I’ve got to pay it back, make it up to her.
Suddenly he chanced to see his watch, came to his feet bonelessly; huge though he admitted his debt to his sister was, to Someone else he owed even more.
“I’ve got to go, Jus.”
“You and your bloody Church! When are you going to grow out of it?”
“Never, I hope.”
“When will I see you?”
“Well, since today’s Friday, tomorrow of
course, eleven o’clock, here.”
“Okay. Be a good boy.”
He was already several yards away, Riverview boater back on his head, but he turned to smile at her. “Am I ever anything else?”
She grinned. “Bless you, no. You’re too good to be true; I’m the one always in trouble. See you tomorrow.”
There were huge padded red leather doors inside the vestibule of Saint Mary’s; Dane poked one open and slipped inside. He had left Justine a little earlier than was strictly necessary, but he always liked to get into a church before it filled, became a shifting focus of sighs, coughs, rustles, whispers. When he was alone it was so much better. There was a sacristan kindling branches of candles on the high altar; a deacon, he judged unerringly. Head bowed, he genuflected and made the Sign of the Cross as he passed in front of the tabernacle, then quietly slid into a pew.
On his knees, he put his head on his folded hands and let his mind float freely. He didn’t consciously pray, but rather became an intrinsic part of the atmosphere, which he felt as dense yet ethereal, unspeakably holy, brooding. It was as if he had turned into a flame in one of the little red glass sanctuary lamps, always just fluttering on the brink of extinction, sustained by a small puddle of some vital essence, radiating a minute but enduring glow out into the far darknesses. Stillness, formlessness, forgetfulness of his human identity; these were what Dane got from being in a church. Nowhere else did he feel so right, so much at peace with himself, so removed from pain. His lashes lowered, his eyes closed.
From the organ gallery came the shuffling of feet, a preparatory wheeze, a breathy expulsion of air from pipes. The Saint Mary’s Cathedral Boys’ School choir was coming in early to sandwich a little practice between now and the coming ritual. It was only a Friday midday Benediction, but one of Dane’s friends and teachers from Riverview was celebrating it, and he had wanted to come.
The organ gave off a few chords, quietened into a rippling accompaniment, and into the dim stone-lace arches one unearthly boy’s voice soared, thin and high and sweet, so filled with innocent purity the few people in the great empty church closed their eyes, mourned for that which could never come to them again.
Fit panis hominum,
Dat panis coelicus
O res mirabilis,
Servus et humilis….
Bread of angels, heavenly bread, O thing of wonder. Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice! Let Thine ear be attuned to the sounds of my supplication. Turn not away, O Lord, turn not away. For Thou art my Sovereign, my Master, my God, and I am Thy humble servant. In Thine eyes only one thing counts, goodness. Thou carest not if Thy servants be beautiful or ugly. To Thee only the heart matters; in Thee all is healed, in Thee I know peace.
Lord, it is lonely. I pray it be over soon, the pain of life. They do not understand that I, so gifted, find so much pain in living. But Thou dost, and Thy comfort is all which sustains me. No matter what Thou requirest of me, O Lord, shall be give, for I love Thee. And if I might presume to ask anything of Thee, it is that in Thee all else shall be forever forgotten….
“You’re very quiet, Mum,” said Dane. “Thinking of what? Of Drogheda?”
“No,” said Meggie drowsily. “I’m thinking that I’m getting old. I found half a dozen grey hairs this morning, and my bones ache.”
“You’ll never be old, Mum,” he said comfortably.
“I wish that were true, love, but unfortunately it isn’t. I’m beginning to need the borehead, which is a sure sign of old age.”
They were lying in the warm winter sun on towels spread over the Drogheda grass, by the borehead. At the far end of the great pool boiling water thundered and splashed, the reek of sulphur drifted and floated into nothing. It was one of the great winter pleasures, to swim in the borehead. All the aches and pains of encroaching age were soothed away, Meggie thought, and turned to lie on her back, her head in the shade of the log on which she and Father Ralph had sat so long ago. A very long time ago; she was unable to conjure up even a faint echo of what she must have felt when Ralph had kissed her.
Then she heard Dane get up, and opened her eyes. He had always been her baby, her lovely little boy; though she had watched him change and grow with proprietary pride, she had done so with an image of the laughing baby superimposed on his maturing face. It had not yet occurred to her that actually he was no longer in any way a child.