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A Descant for Gossips
By Thea Astley
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 1960 Thea Astley
All rights reserved.
Almost as long as Vinny Lalor could remember she had been on the fringe of things. Family and school both found her their least important member. They circled giddily without needing her. She was afraid, as she clung to the spinning edges of her world, that one day she would be flung unwanted and violently into space. Even the new season did not burst over her in a green flurry. Buds flocked along the adolescent trees, but she came, after her fourteenth winter, unmoved by the spring into the first week of the last term.
There was over everything, town and people, a dusty aridity, a breathlessness of rising temperatures and dry winds. Stolidly across the railway tracks the two pubs faced each other, roaring every evening until eleven with butterfactory hands come to cool off and to play snooker and pool in the rooms behind the bars. Spring came over the town with the poker and the beer and the starting-price betting all going on as usual, and as usual the bleary eye of the law turned in upon itself or lacklustrely courting the youngest of the maids in the farside pub. The clear sunlight in the daytime and at night the inspidity of starlight bathed both houses and shops with an equal uninterest, a flatness that pointed to no emotion behind the facades but made everything appear strangely two-dimensional.
Cruciform, the two main streets had as their pivotal point the school, both primary and secondary sections, and martyred along the town's four limbs were a score of shops and business premises and three times as many houses. There were other roads leading out to the mountain district around Cootharabah and there was the road that curled in across the Mary Valley, but over all the deathly stillness and quiet of that first yawn of near summer shimmered amongst the scrub box and the tallow trees. Spring paraphrased itself with shoots from sap rising in the hoop-pine forests to the west and the piccabeen palms and sand cypresses to the east; but here, centred in hills, valleyed below Bundarra, hammer-hitting the hard blue sky, there were only the new pastures, the sprawling paddocks of Rhodes and paspalum, green-squared between township and forest. What there was of spring in the lack-lyricism of the summer opening was known in seascaped detail to the black swans and cranes fifteen miles away over the wateracres of Cooroibah, but not to Gungee, and not to Vinny Lalor now moving through the motionless morning to her personal crucifixion at the town's heart.
An eight-thirty sun cut the shadows back into the hot grass. A butcher bird drew a swift and lovely arc from the crest of a red cedar into the roadside scrub. And there was nothing ahead of the girl dawdling towards the town but dust, sunlight, crimped trees, the downhill bush road and the uphill town one. She held her schoolbag in front of her, banging it one-two, one-two, with her knees as she walked, watching the wide dark blue strip at the bottom of her letdown tunic flap forward with each jerk. She hated it. And she hated the way her panama sagged and bubbled where the rain had caught it last winter. A universal spleen engaged her whole being with bitterness translated into kicks at stones, nudgings at schoolbag, and a scowl into the vibrant sun. Only one thing prevented her turning about and setting off home again with a plea of illness, and that was the fact that in her case was her special holiday essay, in planning and completing which she had felt an inexplicable delight. For days she had longed to hand it in to Mr. Moller, calculating grandly on his recognition of her genius, and subsequently her prestige (if not popularity) amongst her schoolfellows. For always, from the day when she had first attended school right up to her senior classes, she had been outside the group, position undesired but inevitable.
It seems that in the mob there is frequently the one shunned or suspect or unlovely in some very simple and irremediable way. And in this case it was Vinny. She was not a pretty child or even a particularly clever one. She was thin, pale, and red-headed. Her eyes were a peculiarly light grey and like her mouth they were nearly always unsmiling. But then she had little reason to smile. Glancing back beyond the safe family barricade of compulsory kindness, and discounting it, for she realised now its worth and its worthlessness, she saw in the uneventful years herself, when the skipping season was at its height, left endlessly turning the rope, while awaiting, wordless and patient, the briefest of turns. During the hopscotch and marbles seasons she was never able to find a sparring partner unless one of the spottier, plumper girls were temporarily out of favour. Only then did she find a nebulous kind of companionship, so tenuous she was always fearful of its ending, and barely enjoyed what she snatched. But too soon even this simulacrum vanished before the summer rounders with their unpleasant occasion for team selection which drove her unpopularity, her unlovableness home, as at every team choosing she was left wretchedly until last and then added grudgingly – a concession to numerical needs – as if her presence would bring bad luck to her side. 'I'll have Vinny,' was said, tight smile embarrassed. ('See, you others, I'm saddled with Vinny, but don't you dare think it's because I want her, see.')
Vinny kicked her case viciously, remembering past humiliations still close enough to hurt. She selected a jagged rock from the road edge and hurled it on to the footbridge from where it splashed into the narrow creek that half-circled the town. 'Warburton,' she said under her breath, and then, frightened of saying it because she had seen her mother beat the daylights out of Royce for using the word and because she had once suffered similarly, she quietly spelt 'B-I-T-C-H'. After that she felt much better and stayed hanging over the weathered hand-rail until the last circles on the water had melted into the creek margins.
She took the long way round deliberately, left under the railway bridge, then alongside the tracks past the Exchange Hotel, paint-peeling and tawdry. Of a part with it perhaps in its shabbiness, she sighed and hitched her bag into the other hand. Corner neat with chemist and drapery store flamboyant in summer silk led her on past newsagent and milkbar, sick under morning slops-suds-down-swept to gutter, wet patch ending raggedly before the grocer's territory of kerb took her dustily past the next paper-cluttered ramp. A dented utility angled in carelessly across the grass in the side street and backed towards the entrance of the bakery where Sid Ewers, butcher and beefy in stripes of blue and white, lounged in companionship big-muscled across the door, and sucked the last tobacco rags from his cigarette.
'Le boucher est gentil. Il nous donne de la viande,' Vinny said sourly under her breath, practising her second-best subject and her hatred together. She patted the side of her bag more to encourage herself as she turned in the school gate, and as every day, so today, first in a new term, she closed her personality into its narrow little room where year after friendless year it learnt to perfect the art of self-containment.
Between the technical block and the school proper was the scuffed grass rectangle where the senior pupils lunched and fooled from twelve-thirty till one-thirty or did last-minute 'crams' on the subject for the next period. Cicada-loud with voices, the stridulations of burly boys crashing their cases, it presented to Vinny and to the teetering fringes of giggling girls an equal enticement. But she walked away from the square with an almost cynical world-weariness, up the steps and along the open verandas splashed sun-hot between the spare forms to the girls' cloak room. Peg with name on sticky paper curling back from an area of dried gum marked the place for her hat, but the case had to be humped to the classroom and placed under desk or chair if there were room, or foot-obstructing in the passageway. Vinny dumped it for the moment on the bench that lined the wall below the hat pegs and, going to the bubbler in the corner, splashed water over her hot face and hands. While she was drying herself on a skimpy handkerchief, the bell sounded from the rear veranda, rung jocularly by Mr. Findlay as was his custom on the first day back, expressing cheerful irony for the discipline of the next fifteen weeks. Tirring-tring-tring, tirring-tring-tring, repeated with intervals, made into a tiny programme work with the dutiful smilings of the staff as applause, inciting encores of tirrings. Vinny stuffed her handkerchief down the front of her tunic, grabbed her bag, and raced back along the veranda and down the steps to the assembly ground guarded by flag, full mast, pennoned over coleus pots worked by the primary school and senior garden beds with not a thing to show except a few dusty geraniums.
Although she hurried, the lines were nearly assembled and straightening out when, breathless, she panted on to the tail end. Pearl Warburton whispered to her neighbour and moved away from Vinny as she stood beside her. Vinny pretended unawareness. She had pretended it for years; and with a sense of inner comfort she searched among the faces of the staff to discover the one face that was as kindly to her as it was to everybody, that smiled and was angry dispassionately: Mrs. Striebel, her head bent to conceal her laughter, stood behind Mr. Findlay and to his right, sharing a first-day joke with Mr. Moller.
The headmaster slipped into his diurnal role with the ease of one putting on a dressing- gown. (It fitted him as comfortably, too.) The greetings, the hopes for a pleasant holiday now over, the returning refreshed, the aspirations for a term well spent as the result of stimulating change – all the clichés dear to the educational process were there. Findlay knew, and the staff knew, that though the aphorisms achieved little, they were expected; they capped the moment – these references to God, the empire, duty, the home, children's obligations to parents. What amazed the staff was the enthusiasm that Findlay could bring to the banality, the shining from an inner source that radiated his face as he smiled down on his three hundred charges. Faces fresh or freckled or acne stippled all looked up at him in his transfiguration on the western veranda.
'Like the Sermon on the Mount,' Mr. Millington, the woodwork master, whispered.
Peroration ended, the bell was rung again, this time by the senior perfect, and to the vulgar crashing of a march from Miss Jarman, robust at piano and insolent in her treatment of the major keys, the whole school turned right or left according to position and marched raggedly to their rooms. Moller hitched his grey sports trousers up on his thick belly and strolled out to meet the senior class for English.
In their end room they faced him with grinning anticipation, awaiting the customary sapid remark that usually ushered in a lesson. It did not come. Confronted by the twenty polite faces, the wall maps, the 'suitable' watercolour prints selected by the school committee, he felt an overpowering boredom. Through the southern windows the scrubby stringybarks crowded down on the Imbil road. Not a house was in view. He gave the order and the class seated itself nosily, crashing back school-case lids in order to burrow through to their poetry texts.
'Silence,' Moller said, as he thumbed through his own book.
The September heat was warming the corrugated-iron roof above them in waves, corrugated also, it seemed. He wiped his forehead, his hands, and refolded his handkerchief with the streaked side inward. The class gaped expectantly. What was up? Where was the old Herc ready to have a bit of a joke? Rhonda Welch whispered to Pearl Warburton two desks away and was promptly reprimanded. Vinny watched him with an anticipatory expression only because of her essay. Moller saw the eager look on her face and wondered idly what caused it. He stifled a yawn.
'Open your books at the section on Brennan – 'O desolate eves'. And keep those holiday tasks closed! Howard will collect them at the end of the period.' He nodded shortly at a slim, handsome boy at the end of the front row. Howard turned and winked hugely at the class behind him, but Moller ignored the gesture and tapped impatiently on the table with his pen. Directly in front of him a gangling lad with untidy black hair was painstakingly turning the pages of his text one by one. Moller watched with exaggerated interest and class became very still as they looked on.
'Peters,' he said. 'Peters, must you?'
Peters stared back, lovably dense.
'Must I what, sir?'
'Expend such tender care on each page. Turn them, Peters, at least five at a time. The poem is on page sixty-three.'
The class laughed, relaxed, and settled back more comfortably. Moller nerved himself for the plunge into lyric poetry with a group of adolescents whose tastes were already fairly well formed by film and comic. He pushed his full lower lip out and then bunched it in over the upper; his hands were trembling slightly when they rested on the edge of the table, and he felt a sharp craving for a cigarette. Another yawn was rising in his throat. He waited until all heads were lowered to the books open before them, but he was not deceived by the external appearance of attention, for he knew quite well that although the eyes might be following the words printed on the paper, not one fraction of inner attention or interest would be being given by any of the pupils in the room except one or two. Distracted by a movement from Pearl Warburton again, he saw that she was scribbling a note on a tiny piece of paper. He smiled. He could not be bothered interfering – she was one of the pupils he liked the least. He could still remember a verbal skirmish they had had a year before when the arrogance of her attitude had prompted him to ask her her age. 'Old enough, sir,' she had said.
He commenced reading.
His voice had a peculiar resonance not really suited to poetry reading, but what it lacked by conventional standards was atoned for in the emotion he experienced in his reading and which in some miraculous way he managed to transmit, to the few children who really enjoyed his lessons and benefited by them. Intelligent phrasing and emphasis and a personal underlining of the poet's intentions all conjoined to achieve for the listener a wonderful congruity of reason and feeling. But in poems like this – little personal pain-spots – Moller knew that he transferred the writer's reactions to his own being and suffered in the translation. Even as he read to the deaf room, incredibly the longing swept into the quiet rivers of his blood for the old places and the time-lost evenings of twenty years before, sharp with friends' voices. What creatures budded out of this sudden pain laid bare, reason receding until he was only pain and once more forced to explore this unimportant love or that, familiar fray on still-remembered carpets, harsh tongues tasting his foibles. His present was pain with the past. It was all one thing – the wasting of café conversations in the student days and the weekly visits of squeezed-out talk with Lilian now. There was the group waving violently on the church steps – she had insisted on a formal wedding – and here were the empty rooms at night top-heavy with silence.
He paused after reading the last line and looked up at the class.
Warburton must have successfully delivered her note because he could see Betty Klee scribbling what he assumed was a reply. Howard had drawn an overdeveloped female profile in the margin of his book. Peters, right under his nose, had more juvenile tastes and had inked in every 'o' in the poem. He sighed, quite audibly, and the class took this as the signal to drop the pretence of concentration. They rustled with relief.
Excerpted from A Descant for Gossips by Thea Astley. Copyright © 1960 Thea Astley. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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