“In some other country … people would see what I really was instead of what I’d always been”: a masterpiece from 1947, in a new collection of stories by Southland writer Dan Davin
The band concert was over and the three of us came out of the Regent into Dee Street with the rest of the crowd.
“I could swear she gave me the eye”, Sid said.
“I’ll bet she did.” Wally said. “One look’d be all she’d need, too. Who did, anyway?”
“That sheila with the black hat on that was in front of us about two seats away. You’d be too busy looking at the statue of the naked Greek dame to notice, I expect. Anyhow she was just in front of me when we were coming out and when I pushed the swing door open for her, she turned round and gave me a real grin. Look, there she goes.”
He pointed the way we were going, and, sure enough, we could see a black hat bobbing along a bit in front where the crowd wasn’t so thick.
“Come on boys,” said Wally, “Here we go.”
“But, look here,” I said, “I thought we were going to the Greek’s”. All the same I changed my pace to keep up with theirs.
“To hell with the Greek’s. Who wants to be sitting down to eggs and chips when there’s a chance of picking up a sheila, eh, Sid?”
Sid just grunted. You couldn’t see the girl because of the crowd and he was staring straight down the footpath, towards where we’d last seen her. You wouldn’t have needed to know him as well as I did to guess from the sour way his mouth was closed that he didn’t fancy the shape things were taking much. Wally was a tiger for the girls, and a good-looking joker, too. And old Sid hadn’t had the same confidence in himself since the dentist made him have all his top teeth out. Wally didn’t give him much chance to forget about it, either, calling him Gummy all the evening.
Not that there was anything in it for me, anyway. If there was only one girl I wouldn’t be the chap who got her, that was certain. And, as a matter of fact, though I’d have been the last to say so, I’d have been scared stiff if there’d been the least danger of me being the one. I never really knew why I tagged along with them those Sunday evenings. I must have hoped some sort of miracle would happen, I suppose, and that some sheila or other would fall for me and put me into a position where one move had to follow the other in such a way that my mind’d be made up for me. At the same time I was terrified that just that would happen, knowing in advance that at close quarters with a girl I’d be like a cow with a musket. Anyhow, I needn’t have worried. Nothing ever did happen and by this time I think I was getting to realise only I wouldn’t admit it, that nothing ever would.
That didn’t stop me, though, from putting off going home till the last possible moment in case some sort of miracle turned up and when I finally left Wally or Sid at Rugby Park corner of a Saturday or Sunday night I’d trudge the rest of the way home in the rain or the moonlight, cursing myself and the town and everything in it and wondering what the hell was the matter with me, whether I was a different breed or what, and why it was always me that was left, and thinking that in some other country somewhere things mightn’t be like that at all and people would see what I really was instead of what I’d always been.
So, with all that at the back of my mind, and Wally rampaging alongside with about as many afterthoughts as a dog has after a rabbit, and Sid on the other side getting down in the mouth already at the thought that Wally was going to pinch his girl, I didn’t think much of the night’s prospects. The upshot’d be that Wally would get her all right and I’d have to spend what was left of the evening at the Greek’s trying to cheer Sid up by encouraging him to skite about all the girls that had fallen for him and pretending not to notice how much Wally going off with this one had got under his skin.
Well, after a bit the crowd got thinner and most of them started to cross over to where the last tram was waiting, towards the Majestic side. So we could see better what was in front of us. And there was the girl all right, about twenty yards ahead, all by herself into the bargain, and pacing along at a fair bat. Good legs she had, too.
“I reckon she knows we’re following her,” Wally said. “The trouble is, there’s too many of us.”
“That’s right, Wally.” It was very sarcastic the way Sid said it but that didn’t worry Wally.
“Go on, Sid,” he said, “don’t be a dog in the manger. A fair fight and let the best man win, eh?”
Of course, that was just the trouble, the way Sid looked at it. It’s always the best man who says these things.
Anyhow, before Sid could think of an answer, or before he could think of something that wouldn’t have given away he knew he hadn’t a hope against Wally whatever kind of fight it was, the girl started to cross the road and so, us too, we changed course like a school of sprats and over the road after her, only about ten yards behind by this time.
She stepped up onto the footpath on the opposite side of the road, us tagging behind like three balloons on a string. She looked behind just then and saw us.
“Now’s our chance,” Sid said, getting quite excited and nervous, I could tell.
Wally didn’t say anything but he took advantage of his long legs and he was up on the pavement a good yard in front of us.
It was darker on the footpath because of the shop verandahs and because the nearest street-lamp was a good distance away. At first I couldn’t see what was happening, owing to the notion I had that if I wore my glasses when we were out on the pick-up on nights like this I’d spoil my chances, such as they were: but I felt both Wally and Sid check. And then I saw what it was. The girl had stepped into a shop doorway and there was a chap there waiting for her.
The girl and her bloke came out of the doorway and walked off towards the other end of Dee Street, her hanging on his arm and talking a blue streak and laughing the way we could tell the joke was on us. And the bloke looked back once as if he’d like to have come at us. But, seeing Wally and thinking he had the trumps anyway, I suppose, he turned round again and kept on going.
“Well, I’m damned,” Wally said.
“Foiled again,” Sid said. But he didn’t sound narked at all, really, and I knew by his voice he’d sooner have had it that way so that the laugh was on Wally instead of on himself as it would have been if things had gone differently.
I was pleased, too, for that matter, though I couldn’t help envying that bloke a bit with a good-looking girl on his arm and a nice new blue overcoat and Borsalino and never a doubt in his head as to where he was going and what he’d do when he got there.
Still, envying him made it easier to pretend I meant it when I cursed the girl up hill and down dale like the others. For it wouldn’t have done for me to show I was really relieved. It was sort of understood that even if I didn’t mean business like Wally and Sid I had to go through the motions just the same. They really weren’t bad blokes in a way, Wally and Sid, because they knew all the time I wasn’t a serious competitor and yet they always treated me as if I was, thinking I’d be hurt if they didn’t, I suppose.
And I would have been hurt, too. Somehow, if there hadn’t been this kind of agreement about the way we were all to behave, I’d have had to drop the game altogether. I could tell that, because when, as happened sometimes, other blokes joined us who didn’t know the rules or didn’t care if there were any and they began to pull my leg, I always pushed off after a while. Which was what these other chaps wanted, I expect. “The Wet Napkin,” I heard one of them, Ginger Foyle it was, say once after I’d gone and he didn’t think I could hear him, because I hadn’t got my glasses on, perhaps.
No, Wally and Sid weren’t like that, especially Wally. They knew I was all right once you got to know me and, besides, I used to be able to make them laugh when we were by ourselves and get them to see the funny side of things they’d never have noticed if it hadn’t been for me.
Well, anyway, there we were left standing in the middle of Dee Street and all cursing our heads off in the same way.
“Nothing for it but to go over to the Greek’s,” I said.
“Listen to him, will you, Sid,” Wally said. “Him and his bloody Greek’s. And us all whetted up for a bite of something tastier than old Harry could ever put under our noses.”
I felt a fool immediately, because I might have known that was the wrong thing to say, the way they were feeling. Once Wally had got the idea of skirt into his head it wasn’t easy to put him off. And Sid, for all I don’t think he really liked Wally, would trail along with him all right, knowing that was his best chance. That was what fascinated him about Wally, he could always have what Wally didn’t want. But it was what made him hate Wally’s guts, too.
Besides, I suppose they felt I’d sort of broken the rules by not being keen enough and waiting a bit longer before giving up what we all knew was a bad job.
“Well, what’ll we do now, Wally?” Sid said.
“Let’s take a stroll as far as the Civic and back,” I chipped in, trying to establish myself again. “You never know, we might pick up something.”
“That’s more like it,” Wally said. And then, because he wasn’t a bad bloke, a better chap in many ways than Sid would ever be, he added: “After all, if there’s nothing doing, we can always go over to have a feed at the Greek’s later on.” Which showed he wasn’t really fooled by what I’d said.
So away we went, down past the Majestic where Len Parry and Alec Haynes and all that bunch were as usual, pretending they were talking about who was going to win the Ranfurly Shield when all they were interested in really was the girls who kept scuttling by on their way back from the band concert. I took a look at the Town Clock on the other side as we went by and there it was, half-past ten already, one more Sunday evening just about over and nothing happening, only the same old thing. Already everyone who had anywhere to go was going there and soon the only people left in the streets would be chaps like us who couldn’t think of anything better to do and soon we’d be gone home too and the streets would be empty and another night would be gone out of a man’s life and him none the wiser one way or the other.
“Was that your cousin Marty I saw all by himself in the doorway next that bloke who met the sheila, Ned?” Sid suddenly asked.
“I didn’t notice.”
“It was him all right, poor bastard,” Wally said.
I pricked up my ears at that. My cousin Marty wasn’t the sort of chap you talked about with that particular tone in your voice. He was rather a big shot in the eyes of our crowd. A good five or six years older than any of us, he must have been twenty-two or twenty-three, and he used to earn good money before the slump. A plasterer he was, by trade. But he’d been one of the first to be turned off when things got tough because, though he was good at his job, he had a terrible temper and was too handy with his fists. A big joker, he was, with reach and height, and they used to say that if only he’d do a bit more training there wasn’t a pro in the business he couldn’t have put on his back for the count. As it was he”d made quite a name for himself round the town as a fighter and once when I was at the barber’s and got fed up with the way slick little Basset kept taking me for granted because I didn’t know what was going to win the Gore Cup I’d managed to get in casually that Marty was my cousin and after that Basset could never do enough for me.
“What do you mean, ‘poor bastard’?” Sid was saying.
“Didn’t you hear? The trouble with you, Sid, is you never hear anything now you’ve got your teeth out.”
“Come on, come on, know-all. What’s it all about?”
“Yes, what was it, Wally?” I asked; for I could tell Wally was wishing he’d kept his mouth shut, knowing Marty was my cousin.
“Well, it’s only what they’re saying, Ned, and there mightn’t be anything in it, though I have noticed Marty hasn’t been about much lately. You know how you’d always see him and Dulcie Moore round together of a Saturday and Sunday night?”
“That’s right,” Sid said, glad to get in on the inside again. “I saw them coming out of the Rose Gardens about two in the morning the night of Ginger Foyle’s keg-party and they were always at the Waikiwi dances together.”
“Well, they say he put her up the spout.And then he got some old dame who hangs out in Georgetown to fix her up. Of course, that’s happening all the time all over the place, you know, and nobody ever thinks a thing about it as long as no one gets caught.” This was for me. “But the trouble this time was that something went wrong and she got blood-poisoning or something, and now she’s in hospital and they say the johns have been at her all the time beside her bed trying to find out who did it and who was the man. But so far she won’t say and the odds are she won’t pull through.”
“Jesus,” said Sid. “I thought he looked a bit down in the mouth.”
“Wouldn’t you be?”
“But, look here, Wally,” I said, “who told you all this?”
“I heard Marty’s crowd, Jim Fergus and all that lot, talking about it yesterday after the game. And when I was shaving in the bathroom this morning and they didn’t know I was there, I heard Mum telling the old man about it. It was her that told that bit about her not being expected to live.”
We’d got as far as the Civic and turned back by this time and the crowd was getting very thin by now, everybody making for home, feeling much the way I”d been feeling, I expect, that they might as well be in bed as hanging round. Only I didn’t feel like that any more. Things happened, sure enough, and even to people you knew, even to your own family, near enough.
Sid and Wally kept talking about it all the way back up Tay Street. It was queer the way they seemed to get a sort of pleasure out of discussing it. And what was queerer still was that I liked hearing them talk about it. It must have been partly how old we were and partly the town we lived in. You felt the place wasn’t quite such a dead-alive hole, after all, and you felt you really were grown up when things like that, terrible things but things all the same, happened to people you even knew.
Anyhow, just as we got to the Bank corner, two girls came round it the opposite way and we almost banged into them. While we were dodging around them to let them pass and show what gentlemen we were they cut through between me and Wally and we could hear them giggling as they went on.
“Sorry,” Wally called back in an extra-polite voice I hardly recognised, he could put on the gyver so well when he wanted to.
“Don’t mention it,” one of the girls said and giggled again.
We stopped at that and Sid made a great show of lighting cigarettes for us while we all had a good dekko back to see what the girls were up to.
“They’ve stopped in the doorway next the jewellers,” Wally said. “Come on, Sid, here we go. We’re home and dry.” He was so excited he forgot to pretend I was in on it too.
The two of them cut back the way we’d come, like a couple of whippets at first and then as they got closer with a sort of elaborate stroll as if they might just as well be walking that way as any other. I followed after them, trying to catch up and yet not to catch up. I knew I ought to have gone away. There was no good just tagging on, being a nuisance. But I kept following, all the same.
“Hello,” Wally was saying as I came up to the doorway. “Going anywhere?”
“What’s that got to do with you?” the girl who had called back to us said.
“Well,” Sid said, “it’s getting late for girls to be out by themselves with all the roughs there are about this time of night and we thought you might like to have an escort on the way home.”
Sid could always talk well when it came to the pinch, especially if he had Wally with him. I of course couldn’t say a thing, being as nervous as a cat, although I knew already that it didn’t matter much what I did, me being only the spare part.
“You know what thought did,” the girl said.
“Come on, Isobel,” the other girl said. “It’s getting late.”
“Will you have a cigarette, Isobel?” Wally said. And he took out his case. It was the one he kept his tailor-mades in, not the one he used for home-rolled ones and butts. In that light you’d have taken it for silver.
“Don”t mind if I do.”
“Come on, Isobel,” the other girl said again.
“Now, Jean, don’t be an old fusspot. There’s heaps of time really. Why don’t you have a cigarette, too.”
“That’s right,” Wally said, and so Jean took one from the case, a bit nervously, I thought.
“We don’t even know your names, do we, Jean?” said Isobel when Sid had flourished his lighter for them. You could see them trying to get a look at us while the flame was there. But of course we had our backs to the street-lights and they couldn’t have made out much what we looked like.
“That’s easy,” Wally said then. “I’ll introduce us. My name’s Wally Radford and this is my friend Sid, Sid Cable. And this is Ned.”
“He’s a quiet one, isn’t he?” Isobel gave Jean a nudge and giggled at me.
I tried to think of something very witty to say, the sort of thing that would have come to Wally or Sid in a flash. But I couldn’t think of anything at all and I could feel myself blushing. I hated that Isobel then.
It was always the good-looking ones that made me feel most of a fool. The other one, Jean, I didn’t mind so much because I could tell by her way of giggling that she was nervous, too. She wasn’t anything like such a good-looker, though.
There was a bit of a silence then. They were all waiting for me to say something. When I still didn’t say anything I felt them all just give me up. Wally got into the doorway close to Isobel and tried to get his arm round her. She kept fending him off and looking at him and then at Jean in a way that said as plain as a pikestaff: Wait till afterwards when we can get away by ourselves.
Sid was talking a blue streak to Jean so as to give her a chance to get over her shyness, I suppose, and to shut me out of it and make me see I was being the gooseberry, in case I didn’t see it already.
There was nothing to do but leave them to it. I was only holding Wally and Sid back from doing their stuff, hanging round like that.
“Well, I must be getting along,” I said.
“Why don’t you come with us?” Jean said. Her voice sounded quite scared. But I could tell Sid wasn’t going to get anywhere with her and I wasn’t going to have her use me as an excuse to keep him off and then have him putting the blame on me next day.
“I”d like to,” I said, “but I live up the other end of the town.”
“OK, Ned, good night,” Wally said in an offhand sort of way and Sid said good night too, in the friendly voice he always used when you were doing something he wanted you to do. That was one of the things Sid liked about me, that I always did the expected thing. It wasn’t one of the things I liked about him.
So I set off by myself up towards the Bank corner again, feeling like a motherless foal, as the old man would have said. I thought I’d better give them plenty of time to get clear and so I decided I’d walk a few blocks up Dee Street and back again.
The town clock was pointing to nearly eleven by now. All the crowd that’d been in front of the Majestic was gone and Dee Street was as empty as the tomb except for a bobby standing in the library doorway over the other side, just in case there should be a row at the Greek’s, I expect.
Seeing the Greek’s lighted windows gave me the idea of going in for a feed, after all. But it was pretty late and I couldn’t face going in there all by myself, with the blokes eyeing me and guessing what had happened. So I crossed Esk Street and went straight on up.
But it wasn’t nearly so bad being by yourself when the whole street was empty like that and you didn’t have to wonder what people were thinking about you. I quite liked striding along under the shop verandahs as if I were going nowhere in a hurry and listening to my heels hammer on the asphalt and seeing my reflection pass dark on the windows. It was better feeling miserable by yourself and not having to put up a show any more. Or else the kind of show you put up when there was no one but yourself to watch was more convincing.
I stopped in my tracks and looked round to see where the voice came from. Then I saw him. He was in the same doorway that the sheila had met her bloke in earlier on. He was standing there, all stiff like a sentry, and in that light you’d have thought his eyes were black they were so dark. A Spaniard, he might have been, with the long sideboards halfway down his cheeks and his straight, thin nose, that had never been broken for all the boxing he’d done.
“Hullo, Marty,” I said.
He didn’t say any more, just went on looking at me. I didn’t know quite what to do because it struck me it was probably only the suddenness of seeing someone he knew that had made him call out and probably he wished he hadn’t now. Besides, knowing what I did, I felt uncomfortable.
I went up to him all the same, not knowing how to get away without it looking awkward and as if I’d heard about his trouble and was dodging off so as not to be seen with him.
“Have a cigarette,” I said, and I produced a packet of ten Capstan.
I lit them for us both and when that was over there I was still stuck and unable to think of anything else to say. The only things that came into my head sounded quite hopeless compared with the things that he must have in his mind.
“All the crowd gone home?” I said in the end, for lack of anything better.
“Suppose so,” he answered and took a puff of the cigarette. Then he added in a voice so savage that it gave me a real fright. “Who the hell cares what they’ve done? Pack of bastards.”
I didn’t say anything. I was trying to work out what he meant by that. Had they done the dirty on him and talked to the johns? Or was he just fed up with them?
He gave me a look just then, the first time he’d really looked at me since I stopped.
“You’ve heard all about it, I suppose?”
That stumped me properly. I didn’t want him to get the idea the whole town was talking about him. Especially as that was what they were probably doing. I was scared of him too. He’d be a bad bloke to say the wrong thing to.
“Hear about what?”
“You know.” He’d guessed by the time I took to answer. “About Dulcie.”
There was no good pretending. “Yes,” I said. “How is she?”
He didn’t answer but he kept on looking at me in the same queer way that he had been looking at me before. And then, as if he’d been sizing me up, he got down to what was on his mind.
“Look here, Ned,” he said. “What about doing something for me?”
“All right,” I said. “What do you want me to do?” My heart was in my boots because I didn’t know much about the law but I felt sure this was going to be something against it.
“It’s like this. I can’t ring the hospital to see how she is because the johns are there and they keep asking me my name and they know my voice, too. What about you ringing for me?”
“All right, Marty,” I said. “But what’ll I say if they ask who I am? If I give my name they might come poking about home trying to find out what I know about it.”
“Say your name’s Eddie Sharp. That’s a friend of her young brother’s and it’d be quite natural for him to ring. Will you do it?”
“I”ll just see if I’ve got any pennies.”
We walked back towards the Post Office square. But the john was still in the library doorway and so I told Marty to go back to the place where I’d met him and wait for me there.
The john gave me that hard look that policemen give you but I went straight past him without giving a sign of how nervous I was. It was being so sorry for Marty that made me able to do it, I think.
“Southland Hospital,” a woman’s voice answered when I’d got the number.
“I want to inquire about a patient, Miss Moore, Miss Dulcie Moore.”
“Will you hold on, please?”
There was a lot of clicking at the other end and I could hear whispering. Then a man’s voice answered.
“The patient died an hour ago. Who is that speaking?”
I didn’t answer. I just rang off and came out of the phone box.
How was I going to tell him, I kept asking myself as I went back past the john, hardly noticing him this time.
Marty was standing in the doorway, just as he had been the first time.
“How was she?”
There was nothing else I could do. I out with it.
“She died an hour ago.”
He stood there without saying a thing, just looking at me and yet not seeing me. Then he took a deep breath and his chest came out and he stood even straighter.
“So that’s how it is,” he said. “She’s dead.”
I didn’t say anything. I just stood there, wishing I was anywhere else in the world.
“If only I’d known,” he said. “Christ, man, I’d have married her a hundred times, kid and all.”
He stopped. His mind must have been going over and over this ground for days.
He gave a laugh suddenly, such a queer, savage sort of a laugh that I jumped.
“If it’d been twins, even,” he said.
I had enough sense not to think that I was meant to laugh at that one.
“And those bloody johns sitting by the bed.”
“Did she come to?” I asked.
“Yes, she was conscious a lot of the time. But she wouldn’t talk, not Dulcie. Not her. She was all right, Dulcie.”
Then there was silence again. I didn’t know what to do or say. It was getting late. They’d have locked the door at home and there’d be a rumpus if they knew what time it was when I came in. How queer it was: here I was in the middle of something that really mattered and worrying about what my mother would say if she heard me climbing in the window.
All the same I wanted to get home. And then I had to admit to myself it wasn’t really that. It was that I wanted to get away from Marty. I think it must have been the first time I was ever with someone who felt as badly as he was feeling.
“I remember her,” I said. “She was a stunner to look at.”
“Wasn’t she?” Marty said. And the way he said it made the tears come into my eyes.
“Why don’t you walk my way?” I asked him. If he did that I could be making towards home and at the same time wouldn’t feel I was ratting on him.
“No, I’m not going home yet,” he said.
I shuffled from one foot to the other, wondering what to do next and a bit worried what he would do after I’d gone.
“We always used to meet here,” he said. “In this doorway.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, look here, Marty, I’ve got to be getting home now.”
“That’s all right.”
I tried to think of some way of saying how sorry I was. But there was no way of saying it.
“Good night, Ned,” he said, and then, as I began to walk away, he called out: “Thanks for doing that for me.”
So that’s how it is, I was saying to myself all the way home. That’s the sort of thing that happens once the gloves are off. And by the time I’d got to the front gate and opened it with one hand on the latch to stop it clicking and sat on the front verandah to take my shoes off I think I’d taken it all into myself and begun to wake up to how we only kid ourselves we can tell the good things from the bad things when really they’re so mixed up that half the time we’re thinking one thing, feeling another, and doing something else altogether.
“The Quiet One” was first published in Landfall in September 1947, and is included in the new collection The Gorse Blooms Pale: Dan Davin’s Southland Stories edited by Janet Wilson (Otago University Press, $45), available in bookstores nationwide.