Authors: Roger McDonald
“Who's he?” asked Frances.
“He had his boy with him â by golly he's a handsome type, smart as they come.” In some detail Harry described a person called Robert until Frances burst out: “Could he possibly be a Greek god?” â Harry's
enthusiasms ran on such lines.
“They own âWestbury' near Condobolin, and innumerable places elsewhere,” explained Mrs Reilly.
“Clever and rich, damn them,” said Harry with a laugh.
“Pat and I knew them ages ago. Before you were born, when the Austrian prince went shooting with the Narromine Macks.”
The story of the prince had whiskers on it, but who had ever talked about these Gillens? “Why does Harry know these things when I don't?”
“Any girl who marries into the Gillen crowd is in for a hot old time,” said Harry. “South America â they're sailing today â you name it, interests everywhere.”
He then cupped an arm around two waists and they set off up the hill.
When the crowd dispersed from the ferry a lone figure had been left on the wharf. Any watcher who cared to observe would have seen straight away that this remaining passenger came from out of town. His concentration as he fixed a pipe was too nonchalantly oblivious to the diversions all round. A local would have given the ferry a long and approving look of farewell, and would have taken in the tableau of the two women and the man with frank interest. Certainly no-one but a stranger would have been downright furtive, and slipped as this one did into the shaded mouth of the shelter shed. Harry, tossing his head exaggeratedly to three points of the compass during a bout of laughter was the only one to notice. But if Frances had turned
she would have recognized Billy Mackenzie immediately: he slouched with the same immobile expectancy that had characterized her last sight of him on Parkes station.
Yet after a minute this changed, and his manner became craftily decisive. When the trio moved another fifty yards he moved also, seeming to dawdle as he puffed his pipe and shifted his coat from the crook of one arm to the other. When the three slowed approaching the Reilly's place he plumped himself on the stone fence of a for-sale house, thus becoming one of an elongated crowd: up the road other figures hung over gates or sat on fences enjoying the cool change. When Frances did in fact look straight at him she registered no-one at all, seeing just another inhabitant of a street turned inside out for coolness.
Billy was ready to greet the females now, but preferred to see whether the man would go away. Also the harbourside evening had at last begun to work on him. He was strong willed enough to suspend his purpose in coming here and give himself over to a glimpsed extension of yellow rock just where a low shaft of sun illuminated the point, and wonder if it was a good fishing spot.
With Harry, Frances found herself enmeshed in ambiguous gestures. He was difficult. Not in manner, but in purpose. He seemed to want all the trappings of a close relationship â the roses, the theatre, the flirtatious gestures, the quick sexless kisses of farewell â but they merely duplicated themselves, becoming nothing sensible. And when he fell into one of his “slush” moods, losing all control of his pride as he had that night with Diana, he was impossibly weak, and all one could do was assist in his self-defeat.
Now irritated at the man's hanging on, it was another Harry that spurred Billy's envy â the man who on evenings like this could be fun of a sort. He was, as her mother said, “grand to be seen with”. Some of this reached Billy and he repeatedly chopped a swinging heel against the stone fence. After absorbing the remaining glory of the evening â an empty tram braking its hollow-lit shell to the water â he turned his glance with increasing impatience towards the women and their imposing companion. The fellow's lithe physique would be handy in a fight.
Harry, who was never in a hurry, had by now started on scandalous stories of the theatre. He was not himself at such moments, but a mouthpiece for attenuated rumour. He whispered a name, and Frances skipped a couple of steps around to ask, “What?
?” But they refused to say.
This evasiveness was pleasant.
It was almost dark and Mrs Reilly asked him in.
“Thanks, no. I've a man to see about a dog up at the Junction. Gotta be there now, won't make it.” He consulted his watch and caught Frances's eye for a rolling fraction of a second, and she thought: Weak old Harry, he's only off because the cafe closes at seven and he wants a quick dinner, then he'll go to his flat and iron collars all night. She was about to tease him, but thought better of it in case he changed his mind. Instead she asked:
“Will you post a letter for me?”
“Don't bother Harry when he's going.”
“Right â” Frances streaked down the side path.
“She's bored. And along comes a strange sheaf of writing from one of her train friends, urging a romance.”
“Well, well,” said Harry in his gossip's voice as Frances reappeared.
The pale blue envelope was swallowed by the slit mouth of his inside pocket â the last glimpse anyone was to have of it. “Top priority,” he assured the world, tapping his coat where the hollow rap of paper could be heard. He grinned at Frances, for once failing to hide his badly-aligned teeth, which were starch-white but “falling all over each other”, as Frances liked to say.
After the women had disappeared inside, and the tram had whined two stops uphill to collect Harry, Billy sauntered to the ornate brown door holding a lily ripped from the garden of the old Konrad place.
When Frances answered the doorbell she was quite unsurprised. “I knew it'd be you,” she said: yet even as she spoke the different sources of her intuition had barely clicked into place â¦ the voice on the telephone, the coatless figure perched on the fence. “Our visitors usually let us know first,” she continued abruptly. Billy thrust the yellow flower into her hands, forgetting in the face of her rudeness the speech he'd prepared.
“Oh dear, come in.” And after a pause, “
When Mrs Reilly bustled down the hall Billy knew at once how to treat her. She was an older version of Brigid Scott, right down to the way she took his hand at waist-level, and stayed close as she spoke.
“How nice you should know Pat,” she said after explanations. They tracked down the hall, Billy bumping his shins on a carved chest, and emerged in the kitchen where Helen was about to set the table for steak and kidney pudding. Mrs Reilly found Billy a
glass of stout and took one herself. “I was sorry to hear about your mother.” She leaned across, she actually touched his hand.
“How did you know?”
“I heard from Walter Gilchrist,” said Frances, “we correspond, you know.”
Billy launched into a version of his visit to Sydney while Helen darted in at his elbow with a fistful of cutlery. “Tah,” said the visitor. Frances seemed bent on discovering the exact time needed for the smudged heat of her thumb to fade from the crook of a spoon handle: but all the while she wondered how Billy had landed so quickly at the heart of her family.
“After Mum died I felt low. I ended up at Wellington â d'you know it? â I knew a bloke's name there and we got on well enough, so I helped him out for a couple of weeks. For money.” He jangled a hidden pocket. “I sold my horse. We was glad to see the last of each other. Nine pound, and the bloke must be hopping.” He laughed with a sniffle, and began eating his pie before the others, then remembered himself and settled his implements quietly.
“What about your father?” asked Mrs Reilly.
“He don't need me, except,” and the bluntness softened, “as a hand.”
“So you're going back,” Frances spoke more easily.
“Tomorrow,” said Billy, who had no such intention.
He named a “swells' hotel” in Sussex Street. Mrs Reilly happened to know of it, though she kept the knowledge to herself â it was a cheap and cramped last resort for debris from the bush.
“It's not as roomy as your old man's place but it's real snug.” He had been on the verge of lying expansively â just as the story of his stay at Wellington
would need to be lies, if they wanted more details. Mrs Reilly's smile was that of an ally â he could get away with murder in her company but he sensed the difference between distorting hard facts and the allowable charm of other whoppers. So he winked, and concluded: “Snug enough for this character.”
From Frances's point of view the wink practically froze: it created a multi-folded seal of flesh across Billy's left eye, held long enough to shift from the quick and commonplace gesture it might have been, to something coarse and vociferous, then plain arrogant. She was astonished to hear her mother laugh and say, “I can imagine!”
“Do you know Sydney well?” asked Frances.
“Never been here before.”
She watched him as he talked on. The roughness and the ignorance and the self-confidence, she saw, were not anything like they would be if Billy had been, say, a character on the stage. No Australian audience would believe in a person who was so originally from the bush, yet subtly in charge of himself â and others. Bert Bailey would have had him all at sea, knocking things over, fuddled with inferiority, chewing with his mouth open, gazing at everyday objects as if they'd dropped from the moon. Instead, his directness unsettled her. When he turned as he did every now and then to shoot her one of those enquiring looks she felt helpless in a way that was quite new. Lately Frances had sensed a third or fourth version of herself waiting deep-down. Billy, she could tell, saw her as a finished person: all her doubts and hesitations were held still. And the person he saw was one of those third- or fourth-level ones. It was a limiting regard, yet she was
suddenly caught by it.
At that moment both she and her mother shared the same feeling â Frances slowly becoming aware, her mother plainly aware of and even encouraging the queer pleasure to be got from Billy's company.
After the pudding, while Helen fetched tea, he talked about his mother. His clipped account of the funeral â “a wet day, Mum hated 'em” â gave the occasion a dignity which Walter's long description had lacked. Plainly Walter had no deep feelings engaged in the burial, whereas Billy spoke as someone who had lost almost everything.
“I â I â,” he fumbled for his cup, intending to confess without actually detailing the red panic that had sent him flying with only a change of clothes the day after the funeral, when his father had bellowed from the veranda an enraged order for his return â holding his beltless trousers with one hand and asking if Billy knew where his wife had put his gum-boots.
Then Walter's name came up, just as the doorbell rang and Helen went to usher the evening's adult pupil into the music room. “Five minutes!” yelled Mrs Reilly, clutching her third cup of tea impatient for Billy's opinion.
“He's not cut out for the farm.”
“Oh?” Mrs Reilly let the query rise and fall through three syllables in the manner of someone who all in one receives desired information, ironically underlines it, then urges for more.
“He's always wanted to be a geologist. I've learnt a bit myself through talking to him. Any old rock,” he said in an aside to the ceiling, “can be millions of years old.”
Frances breathed, “Truly?”
“Wally's always got a book somewhere handy. You can't do that on a farm, can you?”
“Geology books,” the daughter supposed.
“All varieties â even Charles Dickens.”
“Who hasn't,” said Mrs Reilly in a tone of contest.
“Me,” said Billy unabashed.
Frances fought an impulse to side with such candour.
“His dad sent him out to look for stragglers one shearing time, but he settled under a tree and read up on bones. He got whipped for that.”
“Bones?” Mrs Reilly hastily concluded that Walter, and now Billy, was entirely boring.
“Just about all the animals that ever lived,” Billy instructed her, “are dead.” They waited politely while he sorted out his meaning. “If you want to find out what the world was like before we come on it, how do you?” Again he worked hard at a thought but the thread dangled out of his reach, so Frances grabbed it. She spoke to her mother: “Of all the different species that have ever existed, most are extinct. Extinction” â she quoted Diana â “is the common fate of all species.”
“Don't tell me you're on top of all that stuff,” Billy blurted. After his fair and even admiring account of Walter the outburst came as a surprise. Frances saw his hostility â it snared her together with Walter in the same net â so she stared back.
“Franny's got a science-mad friend,” explained Mrs Reilly. She consulted her watch and leapt up. “I mustn't keep Mr Abbott.” Frances waited for her to say goodbye. But she took Billy's hand and asked: “Shall you stay for supper?”
Helen started the dishes but Frances took over, leaving Billy to shout at the deaf girl for a minute.
“Do you live in?”
“Where're you from?”
.” Kneeling at a cupboard, she looked up at him as though from a deep hole from which she would never emerge.
“Holy smoke,” Billy threw to Frances. He stared at the maid as he had stared that afternoon at a negro off an American whaler.
“You'd be surprised how much I hear,” said Helen suddenly, making one of her longer speeches, each word bent back on the previous one, but with a tortured kind of amusement in the tone.
“Allow me,” Billy said when Helen picked up a tea towel. Helping with the dishes kept him close to Frances, enabling him to move round behind and rake her outline with a hungry gaze. He found himself caught again by the smoulder that had ignited at Forbes, and blazed many times since in his imagination. “This science-mad friend of yours â what's his name?”