Colonel Julian and Other Stories (3 page)

He went back to the mangel field, pushing his hat back on his head as he hoed. All afternoon the sweat stood clear on his forehead, but he hoed without really thinking or feeling the heat. He was thinking of the pedestal table. She had moved it by herself, without asking him; which meant that she was not only strong but independent. He kept thinking, too, of her bare, white arms spread on the tablecloth, and the way she leaned back and stretched her arms over her head and said there was work to do, pulling her dress like smooth skin over her tightened breasts. She was a strong, good-looking girl all right, and in time, when the place was straight inside, she would come out and help him in the fields.

As he walked back to the farm, about five in the afternoon, the heat was moist and windless and the hens were lying silent in dust pools under the walnut tree. He noticed that the windows of the house were wide open. Emmett's milk van stood in the shade of the barn and he could hear now and then the clank of a milk bucket inside the barn. He stood still a minute. The sun stabbed down on the crown of his head and he was wondering if he should go first into the barn or into the house, when suddenly he thought that he heard voices.

When he went inside the barn it seemed blindingly dark for a moment after the hard, bright sun. But after a second or two he saw that Emmett had finished milking. The bubbles were still fresh and blue on the rim of milk in the buckets, and there was a white splash or two among the dark-green dung on the floor.

He stood still for a moment, not seeing anyone and not hearing the voices. Then the voices began again. They came now from the door of the barn and he walked across towards it.

‘Hullo,' Emmett said. ‘I'm talking to Edna. You never told me you were getting help.'

‘No.'

He was looking at the girl. She was standing in the bright sunlight of the doorway with bare arms folded, smiling.

‘She's just been asking me how long since the place seen a coat o' paint,' Emmett said. ‘I tell her I can't remember no farther back than the Boer War.'

Emmett laughed and the girl laughed too. It was a strong, clear laugh, and it seemed to sweep clearly through the thick air of the small farmyard.

‘We bin saying,' Emmett said, ‘it'd pay you to spend a pound or two havin' th' outside painted afore another winter.'

‘The rain's been coming in my bedroom,' the girl said. ‘It must have been coming in for months. It's only because the place has never been turned out it's never been noticed. I moved a chest of drawers this afternoon, and there it was. Paper peeling off the walls, floorboards rotten. It's in a terrible state. It'll only get worse.'

‘Yeh,' Tom said. ‘Yeh.'

‘People are silly about property,' the girl said. ‘They think it takes care of itself. And then one day the house falls down.'

‘That's right,' Emmett said. ‘Ten or twenty quid spent on this place'd be as good as puttin' money in the bank.'

‘Well,' the girl said, ‘tea's ready. You'd better come in.'

She unfolded her arms and walked out of the barn, careless and cool and easy, as if she had been doing the same thing every afternoon of her life. Tom followed her, and as they crossed the yard Emmett called out: ‘If there's anything you want bringing up from Milton, only be too glad,' and the girl half-turned to call back: ‘I've got a list written out. That's what I came to ask you. I'd be glad of them tomorrow.'

As they sat down to tea in the kitchen Tom noticed that the bricks of the floor shone red. For years they had been the colour of earth, and sacks had been laid down to take the dirt of incoming feet. Now the bricks were washed and the sacks gone, and he could smell the cleanliness of the place and feel air moving in at the open window.

‘Here's a list of the things I want,' the girl said. ‘Do you want to see them?' She held out the list, written on a torn envelope.

‘No,' he said. ‘It's all right. If you want 'em, it's all right.'

‘It'll come to money, that's all,' the girl said.

‘I'll git it afore Emmett goes,' he said.

‘No, I wouldn't,' she said. ‘I wouldn't. Emmett can pay and get receipts and I'll settle with him. Oh! and who's your grocer?'

‘Mum allus went Co-Op,' he said. ‘But they give up calling.'

‘Never mind. And where's your oil? I'm down to a pint. Don't you buy it in quantity?'

‘No. I do git run out every once in a while.'

‘Well, why don't you buy it in quantity? A hundred gallons a time or something? I know it's cheaper like that.'

‘A hundred gallons?' he said.

‘Well, why not? You could buy your flour that way, too. Up here where nobody calls much you want your stuff in quantity.'

‘I never thought o' that,' he said. He pondered a moment. ‘Yeh, I remember once when I was a kid it snowed for three or four days and nobody come near. We run out o' flour and never had no bread.'

‘There you are,' she said.

She took his empty cup and poured more tea. It was good and strong and sweet. There were good thick slices of bread and raspberry jam. He liked things sweet, and it was as if she knew.

‘Another thing,' she said. ‘About that bedroom. I can sleep there for a bit, but something'll have to be done. It'll cost money, but it'll be worth it.'

‘I daresay I could do it myself,' he said.

‘I daresay you could,' she said, ‘but I daresay you're not going to. There's a month's work in this place if there's a minute.'

‘Yeh, that's right.'

‘Burning the paint off. Window sashes mended. New paper.'

‘Yeh.'

‘If I were you I'd see to it right away. Unless you want me to?'

‘You,' he said. ‘You. I trust you.'

That night he lay in bed and heard a cuckoo still calling in the June dusk across the woods, deepening the warm silence, but now he was aware also of other sounds. It was strange to feel the presence of another person in the house, to hear the movements of the girl as she walked across the old loose floorboards of the room next to his own. He lay listening to these sounds and thinking of her bare, strong arms, her laugh, the calm confidence of her voice and the way she moved. He thought again of the pedestal table and the clean red floor and the oil and the way she wanted the house done. He saw how natural and sensible all these changes were, and he wondered why he had never noticed them. He wondered, too, why a girl of that calm and sensible disposition had decided to come out to a house that she knew was old and ill-kept and had never been painted for years, where the baker and the butcher had ceased calling and where even in summer you never saw a new face to break the loneliness, and the silver-weed and bindweed and chicory grew so thick on the track across the fields that by high summer the wheel-marks were overgrown. He was not troubled but on the contrary glad that she had come; he was set wondering only because she looked like a girl who could have got some other kind of a job, a
good, decent town job, with gas to cook by and handy shops and pavements and people. It did not occur to him that perhaps she had come for the very opposite sort of reason: because she was tired of people and pavements, or because she wanted loneliness, or because solitude and work and new surroundings would cover up and perhaps in time obliterate something she did not want to remember.

He could not get used to the idea of her sleeping there in the house, so close to him, and he lay awake for a long time. Finally he went off into a heavy sleep, and when he woke the cuckoo was calling again.

To his surprise it was already six o'clock. He got up, went down the dark carpetless stairs, carrying his jacket and his boots in his hands. The girl was in the kitchen, wearing a white pinafore, her hair brushed. She said: ‘Good morning,' and ‘Your shaving water's hot. In the sink.'

‘I reckon to shave o' nights,' he said.

‘Oh, well!' she said, ‘use it for washing. How many eggs do you like? I'm boiling them.'

‘Two,' he said. ‘Two'll do.'

‘I like mine soft,' she said. ‘What about you?'

‘It don't matter. I like 'em either way.'

‘They're better for you soft,' she said.

He ran his hands over the bristles of his face. They were very thick and tough and he felt frowsy. He was embarrassed and, deciding to shave, wondered if she noticed it. After the shave he felt better and he knew that she did notice it. He was bewildered because of it, because she looked at him and because of the eggs, the hot water, and the thought of being waited on.

‘Where are you going to be today?' she said.

‘I got a job on the hay-mower,' he said. ‘Just in the shed.'

‘That's all right—so long as I know where you are. I might want a hand moving a few things.'

He remained bewildered all morning, slightly on edge, waiting for her to call him. She did not call, and when at last he went in to dinner he discovered that she had turned the furniture of his bedroom completely round and had carried the mattress downstairs to air in the sun. ‘I didn't want to bother you,' she said.

Emmett came early that afternoon. It was only a little after two o'clock when he drove the three-wheeler into the yard and parked it under the walnut tre. The girl, hearing the brakes, came out of the house, drying her arms on her pinafore, calling: ‘You brought my things, Mr. Emmett?'

‘There they are,' Emmett said. ‘Pretty nigh a load on 'em.'

‘Did you get everything? Got the receipts?'

‘Everything except the carpet soap. I'll git that tomorrow. Yeh, I got the receipts. Make a hole in four pound.'

‘All right,' she said. ‘I'll check them off as I take them in.'

‘I'd better take the flour in for you,' Emmett said. ‘There's half a hunderd.'

Emmett unloaded the sack of flour and carried it on his back into the house. The girl took packages, bars of soap, candles, jam, vinegar, bread, meat, making two or three journeys. She paused at last to ask Emmett about oil, and Emmett said: ‘Th' oil's comin' up separate. Fifty gallon on it. Be up sarfnoon.'

‘That's all, then. Thanks,' she said.

‘You hadn't ought to starve for a bit,' Emmett said. ‘Make a hole in four pound.'

‘Yes.'

‘I settled up,' Emmett said, waiting.

‘Yes, I know,' she said. ‘Knock it off what you owe for milk.'

Emmett looked at her, dumbly. She walked away, but he did not move or speak. She disappeared into the house, and even then for some moments Emmett did not move. And when at last from under the shed Tom Richards watched him go slowly past towards the cow-barn, he could not believe what he had seen; he could not understand that in a moment the old slipshod arrangement of years had been broken down.

That day Emmett forgot to talk about horse-racing. He forgot to talk much at all, and something new was begun. From that day he began to go back into the town almost every evening with a list of things the girl needed, and on the following afternoon he came out to the farm with the goods and the receipts. In the past he had brought the newspaper; now he brought bread and meat and the weekly groceries and almost everything the girl needed for the house. Every day, as she
took the things into the kitchen, he stood looking after her, dumbly, as if it were his turn now to be mesmerized. And sometimes he would go away as if talking to himself, in moods of angry resistance and perhaps of latent revenge at being used by her like that. She had been nice and familiar to him that first day; he had called her Edna and had got round her in a jiffy. Now look what he was in for. Fetch and carry, do this, do that for her. And then the money. That was a tall order if you like. As if he wasn't going to pay, as if he never did pay. What right had she ordering and dictating about the money?

And so she moved about the farm, systematically collecting the eggs that had once been collected in a slipshod way only by Emmett, gathering red and white currants from old neglected bushes overgrown with nettles and white bindweed behind the barn, hoeing lettuces and carrots she had herself sown in rows where the weeds had been cleared, the two men would watch her in different ways, neither understanding her or why she was there. Emmett saw her with a kind of suppressed resentment out of the corners of his eyes, Tom Richards with cautious bewilderment, clear grey eyes held fascinated by her energy and honesty, by the way her body moved and by the colour of her hair shining like pressed straw in the hot, bright sun. By the end of June house-painters were working in the house, and from the hayfield, where he worked alone in the mornings turning the rows by hand, he could hear the hum of blowlamps burning off paint that had become scaled rough and grey with years of neglect and exposure. He could hear the voices of the two painters talking to each other on the ladders in the still June air, and one morning at last he looked up to see the house as it were staring back at him, stark-eyed with new white paint, from between the barn and the walnut tree.

For some days he could not get used to the clean white windows. He would get used to them in time, perhaps, he thought, just as he would get used to the new cream paint on the doors of the bedrooms, the new flowered wallpaper, the red kitchen floor, the bedsteads that had been moved, and to the presence and appearance of the girl herself in the once faded and dirty house where he had grown used to being alone. He would grow used to her; but now, whenever he
looked at her, or whenever he looked up from hoeing or turning the hay-rows, and saw her coming across the fields with the blue enamel can of tea and the basket of food for Emmett and himself in the afternoons, he experienced the same shock of surprise, the sharp and slightly sickening surprise that she was there at all. Sometimes on very hot afternoons she would change out of her working dress into a thinner frock and it struck him once or twice that she had put on weight since she had come to live at the farm. Her bare arms were brown with sun and her forehead was tanned a paler brown-gold under her bleached hair. In the thinner dress he could see clearly the shape and movements of her breasts as she walked and the brown angle of her upper breast where the sun had burned the smooth blonde skin.

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