Authors: H.E. Bates
She had worked through the heat of the plains for three steaming summers without trying to think of it too much. They used to say that it was not the climate for white womenâno, it was certainly not the climate. Nor was war exactly their destiny either. But there you are: in time you took the heat and the dust and the war and the blood and all the lunatic filth of India because there was nothing else you could do. You were caught in a violent trap. You had to stay. And your only hope of escape from it was that somewhere, some time, if you were lucky, and if you could outlive the heat and the cancer of your unshed tears, you would become, at last, time-expired. You would be going home.
She looked down out of the window and there now, breaking in a series of glistening lines of white contour that seemed transfixed against the strip of yellow sand, was the sea. Did anyone at home, she thought, understand what it meant?
There were times when she thought that the whole frontâ
all of them, the men, the pilots, the nursesâhad been forgotten. They had sometimes said it themselves: a forgotten army of forgotten men. They had been overshadowedâoh yes, she knew that; but the shadow of it did not darken the heat or diminish the glassy impact of their time in exile.
For God's sake there was no use thinking about it. âWe are over the sea now,' she said to the boy. âGoing up the coast.'
He smiled. âFirst time I've flown,' he said.
And God knows, she thought, you're a lucky man to be able to fly. Do you know where you'd be if it weren't for the Daks, coming to fetch you out? You'd be time-expired all right. You'd be rotting forgotten somewhere up in that God-forsaken jungle because there'd be no way of getting you out. You, and the Lord knew how many moreâyou'd have just died up there, wherever you lay. You should all of you go down, she thought, on your bended knees and thank the stars of heaven there were enough Daks to feed and water and supply you, and then when you were wounded bring you out again.
She rested her head against the fuselage and shut her eyes for the first time. Her ears had become slightly blocked by the noise of engines and she had forgotten to swallow and it was quite quiet in her head. Shut away into her own world, she gave herself up to a momentary contemplation of things that were not real. She began to allow herself to think that she, too, was going home. There were no longer any blistering dusty airstrips, no longer any hordes of vultures pouring like bloated grey beetles over the carcasses of the dead, no longer any savage steaming days when you hated the sun. There was no longer any exile, no longer any of that arid female life in transit camps, or of a life with men who, because they were fighting or tired or occupied elsewhere, did not want you. There was an end of all the callous futility of war. She was going home to a place where rain fell deeply and quietly on green grass, not with the madness of the monsoon, and where the pure light and penetration of it would wash the dust for ever out of her bones.
She held on to these thoughts for the remaining half hour of the flight. The wounded all about her were very quiet. The boy made no more attempt to speak to her until the aircraft, banking, began to make its circuit of the field. Even then she
did not open her eyes, but clung on a little longer to an inner world remote from everything she knew to be real. She even shut her eyes a little tighter and held her hands painfully on the edges of the metal seat and thought: âGod, how much longer? How much longer? How much, much longer?'
And then her eyes were open. She made them open with brutal suddenness. She stood up on her feet and saw that the boy's stretcher was swaying slightly as the aircraft turned. She held it still again, with instinctive efficiency.
âComing in to land,' she said, and stood looking down at him. Once again he smiled, and once again she was aware of his helplessness: that same childish masculine helplessness that was always drawing forth her contempt. But she was not contemptuous now.
âWhere's your home?' she said.
âShropshire,' he said.
He nodded and smiled, but did not speak. She saw a small glint of tears in his eyes again and thought: âFor God's sake, any moment now, and he'll be asking me for my address.'
And I am not, she thought, having any of that.
She turned away and looked out of the window and saw the landscape below coming to life: palms beyond the black runway, bright fronds of banana trees drooping in the heat, a mass of crimson bougainvillea flaming by a long cane basha, some coolies running. In a few moments it was all flattening out and seeming suddenly to take on its own speed, and presently she knew by the bump of the wheels that they were down.
As the Dakota taxied to dispersal she turned for the last time to look at the boy. He was relieved and glad that the flight was over. It would be a long time before he was well, but before long, if he were lucky, he would be going home. He at least was really time-expired.
âShropshire for you,' she said, and then walked briskly back through the aircraft just as the pilot cut the engines. There was no sense waiting for an answer.
She stood by the big double doors of the Dakota, and in a moment or two, when they were opened, all the heat and glare of the afternoon rushed in and oppressingly dazzled her face.
She helped get the steps out herself, and was the first person to go down them.
She jumped down on the hot sandy concrete and looked about her. For God's sake, nothing but men. All helpless as usual. All standing about and gaping as if they'd never seen a man on a stretcher before. Two clots of Indian drivers were propping up the two ambulances, and two British boys, bare to the waist and brown as burnt butter, were not much better.
âCome on, come on,' Miss Burke said. âCome on!'
She stood in the fierce sunlight waiting for the stretchers to come out of the plane. To her they came out as they had gone in: a series of anonymous oblongs, plaster-encased, like lumps of nameless statuary. She did not even know which of them differed from another. Even when the boy from Shropshire was brought out, last but one, eyes fixed upon her as if either searching for a sign of friendliness or as if she were something very wonderful, she did not glance at him in return.
Instead she walked deliberately away from the plane to where, by the ambulances, there was some confusion now. The clots couldn't count the ambulance capacity and were trying to get in more men than the vehicles would hold. For the love of God, for God's sake, she thought, just like men. As helpless as babies. Just like men.
âCan't you count now?' she said, raising her voice. âIt's the bunch of wetheads you are, isn't it? You clots, you deadbeats! Can't you see there's a man lying in the sun? Is it round the damn bend all of you are? Get that man out of the sun!'
She marched about among the men and the waiting stretchers with intense impatience, her voice hard and strong and her eyes impersonal as last again in the deadly glare of light.
âDo you think we've got the whole of life to spend here?' she said. âDo you think we've nothing else to do?'
The thin tongue of coast was so flat that it was like a scar on the sea. Nothing rose above the level of the one-storeyed shacks scattered about it like cubes of sea-worn wreckage except a lighthouse, standing up like a vast white candle in a wide lofty sky, so that from a distance it seemed to float in air.
By the end of September, after the heat of summer, the sea-flowers were dead. A long flat tide floated in, almost limped in, washing over and over again the same wide salt-grey waste of sand, the same bright fringe of shingle, black with fresh-strewn seaweed and sprinkled with pretty white and rose and turquoise shells. Salt dust blew on small winds from one side of the road to the other, rattling harshly on steely patches of sea-thistle and dune-grass, and then blew back again. It drifted finely against the shacks, with their sun-spent flowers, that would soon be closed for winter, and buried the steps of their porches a little deeper every day.
From the end of the peninsula it was a two-mile walk for Brand to get the papers. Every morning he walked along the cracked concrete road and bought the papers and perhaps a magazine from the shop where squat black plaice-boats, curtained about with kipper-coloured netting, were beached from the bay. The air was always thick with the smell of sun-dried sea-fish and gangs of swooping gulls crying about the boats, and he was always thirsty by the time he began to walk back along the shore.
Half-way back was a shack, facing the sea, that had tin-plate advertisements nailed over one side of it so that it glittered harshly, blue and green and white and red, in the sun. He noticed it first not because of the advertisements but because it had outside it a square of grass. This grass, watered all summer, was vivid green in the desert of beach and sand. In the middle of it was a white flag-pole and at the top of
the flag-pole was a triangular scarlet flag, with ICES sewn across it in white letters.
He had been there nearly a week when he first went in. Sun and sea-air had warped the jerry-built glass door so that he had to push it violently before it would open. Before he knew it he was half-thrown into the small cafÃ©, against the counter.
Behind the counter stood a woman in a black fur coat and a green scarf on her head, and through a window behind her he could see the sea.
âAnd about time too,' she said. âI thought you were never coming.'
She was smoking a cigarette and she did not take the cigarette from her mouth when she spoke to him. It was burning short and the smoke was curling up into her big face, crinkling the pouches under her eyes.
Suddenly, looking at him again, she burst out laughing.
âOh! God alive, I thought it was the taxi.'
He smiled and she began coughing violently from smoke and laughter, so that grey ash spilt in a fine cloud on the black fur coat. She laughed again and did not shake it free.
âHear that?' she called. âGentleman came in and I thought it was the cab.'
Behind the counter was a door and he could see a kitchen beyond it, but no one answered.
âTerribly sorry, sir.' The cigarette smoke burned straight up into her baggy colourless eyes. âVery rude of me.' She let the ash drop on to her coat again. âSomething we can get you?'
âGlass of milk?' he said.
âSorry, no milk. It's the drought. They cut us down.' She took the cigarette out of her mouth, coughing ash on the counter. âExcuse me. Cuppa tea?'
âCup of tea.'
âHaven't seen a taxi anywhere, I suppose, have you? What do you make the time?'
âJust after eleven.'
âSupposed to be here for eleven. Puts years on you.' She looked beyond him, irritated, through the glass door. âSame with everything.'
He did not answer. She took a packet of cigarettes from the pocket of her fur coat and lit a fresh cigarette from the old, coughing again.
âGentleman'd like a cuppa tea,' she called. âGot one on?'
There was no answer.
âWhyn't you sit down?' she said. âOn holiday? Got a beach-hut here?'
âUp by the lighthouse.'
âGetting a bit late in the season. What d'you do with yourself all day?'
He did not know what to say; there was no point in telling her he was bored all day. Then suddenly she began coughing again, this time with excitement, spilling ash on her coat, the coarse skin of her face and neck creasing and flopping up and down; and in the same moment he heard the taxi on the road outside.
âGod alive, I must fly!'
She came from behind the counter, waddling and coughing, picking up her handbag from the corner of the counter as she passed him.
âCab's here!' she called. âNo message for Fred?'
She pulled the door open and went out across the square of grass under the flag-pole to where, on the concrete beyond, the taxi was turning round. The thin door banged loudly, shaking the walls of the shack, but there was no answer from the room behind.
He sat on one of the stools by the counter and opened the paper. Every day they were saying it was the driest, hottest summer for fifty years. There was already something boring about the sequence of dead dry days and the calm glitter of sea.
He looked up to see a girl standing at the door behind the counter. The high sea-light coming in at the window fell full on her face and made her eyes, especially, seem very large. They were dark brown eyes with extraordinary whites that were not really white at all. They were a pure pale blue, wet and shining, that made the point of the pupils almost black.
âPlease,' he said.
âOne or two?'
He heard the lump of sugar clink on the spoon. She came up to the counter, carrying a cup in one hand and a teapot in the other.
âAnything in the paper?'
She poured out the tea.
âNever is.' She tried for a second or two to read the paper where it was on the counter, upside down. âAnything to eat? I forgot to ask you.'
âNo,' he said. âJust the tea.'
She gave up trying to read the paper upside down and for some moments stood with her arms folded on the counter. She had slim cream hands, the skin thin and transparent, so that the veins shone through like soft blue tendrils; and the fingers were slightly upturned as they lay on the smooth golden hairs of her forearms.
âBusy these days?' he said.
âI can be busy. Just how it takes me. Where are you?'
âUp by the lighthouse.'
She turned the paper round where it lay on the counter, turning it with one long finger, so that she could read it with her head only slightly averted. Her neck was long and deep cream under the dark brown hair.
âEver been up there?' she said.
âNo. Not me. Makes me giddy.'
âDoes it?' she said. âFunny. Never affects me.'