A classic short story from 1959 by the great North Canterbury writer James Courage
In the middle of the morning, an hour after the doctor’s car had left the farm-house, the man lying in bed heard his wife’s voice calling to him half-way up the stairs:
“Jonathan, will you have tea or soup?”
He moved his head on the pillow but did not answer.
“I’m coming up,” he heard her say, less distantly.
Hang the woman, he thought, didn’t she know that he had ‘a throat’, and couldn’t go shouting aloud without hurting himself? Or was she simply delighted that Dr Morgan had ordered him to stay the day in bed, leaving her and the children to play at being top dogs in the house for once? All right, Jonathan thought, all right, we’ll see about that. And he listened to her footsteps coming along the landing to his bedroom.
“Jonathan,” her voice said from the doorway, “do you want tea?”
“No,” he grunted.
“Did I wake you up?”
“Aye, you did.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Stuffed up with this damn cold.” He ran a hand over his reddish bristly cheeks, the pinched his nostrils. “Can’t breathe properly,” he muttered, “lying here.”
“A rest won’t do you do any harm.” She was a small woman and had a neatness, even a kind of elegance, slightly out of place in a farmer’s wife. Now she stood a few feet from her husband’s bed, her blues eyes studying his face with a touch of mockery. “Do you want another blanket?” she asked.
“I’m warm enough,” he said loudly. Pyjamas of striped flannel covered most of his chest.
“Very well, you needn’t shout at me.”
“I wasn’t shouting.”
She went across to the dressing-table beside the low window and began to straighten the collar of her thick dress. “It’s horribly cold outside,” she said. “Almost snowing. You’re better here, Jonathan.”
“I’m not used to staying in my bed.” His voice was stifled with the mucus in his nose and thorax. “The first day for twelve years, Kate.”
They had been married for almost exactly that length of time. “A long while,” she said and just did not remind him that here he was – forty-three years of age, older than she by a long way.
“Is Willy come back yet?” Jonathan mumbled from the bed. The boy was their son whom he had sent out that morning with orders to see that jobs were done on the farm in his, the father’s, absence. “Is Will home?”
“Not yet. I’ll send him up to you. Norah’s playing in the kitchen with me.” She prepared to return to her daughter below. “Is the house quiet enough for you,” she asked, from the doorway, again with mild mockery.
“Aye, I suppose so.”
She left him alone. As she went down the stairs he heard her singing to herself in a soft confident soprano voice, a voice he had hardly heard since the old days when she had sung in a choir; and again he told himself that she was enjoying a sort of triumph over him because he was ill, a captive, nailed down with this trouble in his throat and bronchials. Jonathan lay back on the chill pillow, brooding, drawing his thick hair legs up, holding his hands together across his belly, breathing heavily. He was a big man but suddenly he felt diminished, drained. And now his wife’s singing words floated blithely up to him as she reached the stair-foot:
“On a tree by the river a little bird sat…”
What daft nonsense, what indifference to him, what cruelty! As though she had the words cut on his tombstone already as a sarcastic reflection on his weakness.
“Huh,” said Jonathan angrily to himself and lay staring at the sky beyond the square of the window, the cloudy grey sky of the winter’s day. He could see the tips of the pines and the bare-twigged oaks that made the windbreak on this northern side of the homestead, and beyond and above them the limestone green shoulders of the farm. It was a snug farm, good hill-farmers country, with the ‘nearest village four miles away down the valley. Jonathan had a strong love for his land, every acre and rock of it, every sheep pastured on its upland slopes.
He lay listening. He could hear plates clattering in the kitchen, and then something louder – his wife trying to teach Norah her scales by making her sing in close union with her own voice: Do-re-mi…The child managed five notes then broke into squeals of laughter, again and again. Jonathan stood the din for ten minutes before shouting in a voice that hurt his chest:
“Norah, come up! I want you here.”
The joyous voices below stopped, then a door was banged shut and they continued, muffled but maddening. Jonathan gave a wheezy groan, his mouth open. And now his ears told him that somebody had begun to whistle at the back of the house. The farm dogs started to bark from their kennels under the pines. Yap-yap-yap… Jonathan stiffened. What was going on out there? What didn’t he know about?
The whistling stopped, or rather changed to song, as boots presently clumped up the stairs:
“I care for nobody, no, not I…”
Willy, the boy, had been learning “The Vicar of Bray” at school and saw no reason why his father should not know of his independence. Now he thumped a fist on the bedroom door half inside the room, a tall child of ten, wearing a khaki knitted snow-cap over his yellow hair.
“Is that you, Will?” Jonathan wheezed from the bed.
“You’ve been a hell of a time out.”
“Well, I can’t fly,” Will retorted.
“Don’t try any of your lip on me, m’lad,” the father said hoarsely. “Did you see Beattie?”
“Yes, Dad.” Beattie was Jonathan’s shepherd and ploughman. Jonathan’s wife did not like the man coming upstairs in the house, so Will had been sent out as Jonathan’s agent and messenger. “He said to tell you he’d shifted those ewes down to the turnips,” Will reported in his treble voice with an enunciation he had learnt from his mother.
“Aye,” nodded Jonathan, thinking of his two fields of arable below the house. “Is he ploughing the bottom now?”
“I don’t know if he is.”
“Well, why didn’t you use your eyes?”
The son said nothing. He did not want to be a farmer and Jonathan knew it, though the boy had never come to open revolt over farm-work.
“Are you listening to what I’m telling you, Will?”
“You’re a fine one, by God!” Jonathan began to cough. “Did you tell Beattie I was laid up here?”
“He said you’d caught a chill drinking in the pub.”
“That’s my business,” Jonathan retorted, angry. “I suppose you forgot to tell him he’d milk the cow for me later?”
“He’d know to,” the boy said faintly and began picking at a chilblain on his right hand. The sight of his father’s bulky body in the bed, his father’s pale-purple face and the tuft of peppery-black hair springing from his father’s chest where the pyjamas did not button at the neck, all made him feel unsafe in his deepest soul.
“I can’t get up today, Will,” Jonathan said commandingly. “You behave yourself now. No nonsense.” He’d keep up his power with the boy at any rate. “And you’ll feed the dogs for me,” he grated as an order from his inflamed throat.
Will nodded, ready to depart. “Mum wants me now,” he said and made off down the stairs, jumping four steps at a time, delighted to get away from the old man and have his mother to himself for the day. His father would die, Will hoped.
Upstairs Jonathan’s throat began to pain him after the effort of talking. The doctor had said he was to relax, keep quiet, sleep. Doctors were all fools. Still, Jonathan dozed, listening to a rooster crowing out in the frosty noon, beyond the farm sheds. A day wasted in my life, he thought, a day wasted. And presently he heard laughter downstairs, Will and Norah enjoying themselves in some game that meant shifting chairs and tables and throwing what sounded like books at the wall. Jonathan tried not to hear.
Later, his wife came up to him with a tray. On it was a bowl of mutton broth and two slabs of bread.
“Dr Morgan said you oughtn’t to eat much, Jonathan.”
“I’ll eat what I like, ” he said, stirring.
“What would you like then?”
He heaved himself up, not knowing. “I’ve got no appetite, lying here useless,” he wheezed.
“Why worry? The farm won’t run away.”
“Aye, that’s all your care. ” He took the broth. “I’d be better in a pauper hospital, being naught to anyone.”
“That’s just stupid, ” she said evenly and straightened the bedclothes. “What do you imagine the children and I would do without you?”
“Enjoy yourselves, likely. ” He’d make her know he had heard her singing. “Have no end of a time on your bloody own. Do you hear me, Kate?”
His wife did not answer. She watched him eat, then took the tray away, telling him to sleep. Time passed. The afternoon, with showers and gusts of thin snow that slid past the window, wheeled over the house and farm. Flocks of small birds gathered on the oak-tops, twittered together and flew off. Jonathan lay back, shivering when he moved his shoulders, occasionally trying to clear his breath by coughing. His legs felt weak, sweaty in the bed. And he began to feel deserted, lonely, with nothing to make him real, no work, no clutch on himself. What was she doing, Kate, down below? He wanted somebody; he wanted her.
At four the boy Will came stumping up with a cup of black tea.
“Mum says you’re not to slosh it on the sheet,” he said impudently. “It’ll stain. “What have you been up to?” Jonathan asked with suspicion.
“Peeling potatoes. She asked me to.” The happy tone of voice was a surprise even to Will himself.
“Yelling the roof down,” Jonathan barked. “You and Norah between you, earlier. Send your mother up to me. I want her.”
Will went whistling away, doors banged below, and after a long wait Jonathan’s wife came upstairs again. In the fading pearly light her face was pink, younger than her years, even girlish.
“Are you feeling worse?” she asked her husband.
“Maybe,” Jonathan sighed, then glanced towards the window. “Day’s going, Kate,” he rasped mildly, regretful.
She half drew the curtains, pausing with still-upraised arms, her breasts and fine waist outlined by the window, silently staring out. Jonathan looked at her body, watched her profile. And suddenly, tentatively, like a soft groan, he brought out his oldest name for her: “Kitty – “
She lowered her arms, surprised. “Yes,” she said, surprised; “but you shouldn’t be talking.”
Her husband shifted himself heavily on the bed, looking fixedly at her, trying to draw her down towards him, from a distance. “I’m stuck here,” he began appealingly, “on my own.”
She understood him; her mouth twitched, but she thought he was raving, in fever. “You’re not well, Jonathan, you’re ill.” In a sort of bewildered anger she waited a minute, wanting to remind him that she had her own room, separate, or that sometimes when she felt lonely she slept with her daughter, across the landing. “Besides,” she brought out in her clearest voice, “besides, all that finished between us long ago. We agreed then, Jonathan.”
“Ah,” he said with some bitterness, “You made the agreement.”
“After you first drank too much that time, we both agreed.”
“Aye, well, I suppose so.” His hands pushed their way down in the bed, touching his hot body, his inconvenient desire. “I was only asking for – ” but he couldn’t add the word “comfort”, the word that stuck in his mind. “Well, it’s no matter now,” he ended hoarsely, defeated.
“You oughtn’t to be thinking of such things. She glanced round the cold darkening room. “Look,” she said now, “I’ll light the lamp.” And having primed the wick with a match she lit the kerosene lamp on the table and carried it to a chair at the bedside. “There, that’s better. I must get back to the kitchen,” she said in a tone Jonathan heard as a means of triumphant escape from his presence. She shut the door and left him. He could hear her voice raised downstairs, teasing the child Norah. Her quick recovery shook him; it was too much. And, as he had done earlier in the day, Jonathan shouted again, coughing:
“Norah, come up! Come here to me.”
This time there was a response. The child came dancing up the stairs and stuck her head round the doorway. She wore a red woollen dress with a white collar.
“You’ve been letting me alone,” Jonathan told her in reproof. Wasn’t she his beloved girl, as she’d always been? “Keeping away from me, Norah.”
“I’m not to come close,” she warned, standing stiffly against the door. “You might be infectious.” Her grin showed the gap in her front teeth. She was a pretty child but too thin, her sharp limbs like a little old maid’s already. “You look funny,” she went on to her father, her fingers flying up to her mouth to control a nervous twittering. “Your nose is all red.”
“Aye, I’m not at my best, m’dear.”
There was a silence.
“I heard you and your mother singing,” Jonathan answered. “Enjoying yourselves.”
“Everything’s so funny,” she said in a panic of giggles. Never before had she seen her father in bed in the afternoon. “You up here – and everything – all day – “
“How comes it you didn’t go to school?”
“It’s Saturday,” her young voice squeaked and she glanced towards the shut window as though needing proof. “Didn’t you hear the store van come, Daddy?”
Jonathan had not heard the Saturday delivery van. “You been helping your mother to cook?” he asked.
“We’ve been making taffy.” She still spoke in the same high anguish of excitement, shivering. “With walnuts in it, like Christmas,” she added. “Willy’s put it out to cool now.”
“H’m.” But Jonathan was shaken. So the day had also become a festival, had it, with him helpless? “H’m,” he snorted through his nose, “you made taffy.”
“Mum said we could, special. And she’s been smoking cigarettes,” the child rushed on nervously.
Jonathan’s hands stirred on the bed. Kate had not smoked, to his knowledge, for ten years or more. “Where’d she get cigarettes?” he demanded.
“She bought a packet from the store man. Willy had a puff at one, too. It was funny because he coughed – “
“”Damn funny,” Jonathan coughed also. “I don’t know what’s come over the lot of you, Norah.”
The child suddenly looked small-faced, rebellious. With her back even stiffer against the door she said: “We’re having a holiday.”
“Aye,” Jonathan rasped at her honesty, “the house has gone crazy, all of you.”
“Do you want anything, Daddy?” The child recollected that he had sent for her. “Do you?”
“I’m not dead yet, Norah,” he said evasively, softened by her tone. He still craved for her to come close to him, as the one he loved the most. “I want a little respect, lying here – “
But at that moment a door swung open below and a voice, all to clearly heard, rose from the stair-foot. Will’s most stinging treble rang out as he passed on his way, busy on same careless jaunt of his own:
“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave. His soul goes marching on…”
Listening, Jonathan’s head with its grey bristles of hair lifted from the pillow. All right, all right, he thought, but he’d get some comfort from somebody yet. And he pushed out a thick grey hand over the bed towards the child Norah, his dearest.
“Come here, Norah.”
She shrank a little. “I’m not to,” she said.
“Come near a bit.”
She came a frightened inch forward, towards his hand. “Why?” she asked, having turned against him now. “Why, Daddy?”
“Because I tell you so.”
Her nervous giggle began again. “Mummy says I mustn’t,” she squeaked.
“No matter what your mother says.” Jonathan held his hand out rigidly, his voice rasping: “Come close. Touch me.”
She dragged her feet forward, her body held in a kind of convulsion. “I don’t want to, Daddy.”
“What’s wrong with you, Norah?” Cruel in his love, Jonathan knew he was bullying her but could not stop himself. “What’s wrong?”
“Touch me then.”
The child would come no further. She stood trembling, determined but confused. “No,” she wailed. “No, I mustn’t.” She hated him now, torn in two. And her small stubborn face puckered as she began to cry. “No – no – “
Jonathan dropped his hand. “Aye,” he exploded from his choked throat, “you’re like the rest – you’ve no use for me.” And he rushed on in a terrible voice that he knew condemned him but was uncontrollable: “No thought for me, any of you! Well, listen to me – I’ll be out of this damned bed tomorrow – I’ll be down if it kills me. Do you hear that, Norah? You’ll not make a sick man of me, by God you won’t!”
The child, terrified and rejected, found her strength and, turning, scampered off as fast as her legs would bear her, down the stairs. After a minute all was silent below, not a sound.
Jonathan lay breathing from his exhausted chest. What had he said? He could not remember clearly. After a time he groaned and turned over on his side, to lie staring at the hot steady yellow flame of the lamp on the chair. It seemed a comfort, and he pulled up the sheet and blankets to his chin. He did not want to smile at the flame, but a harsh smile was all he had left. “I’m a man yet,” he said presently to the lamp, “I’m a man yet.”
James Courage was the first New Zealand author to write an openly gay novel, and an openly gay short story (set on Stewart Island!). A new book, James Courage Diaries edited by Chris Brickell (Otago University Press, $45), the private journal kept by Courage, will be reviewed at ReadingRoom by CK Stead, and is available in selected bookstores nationwide from early August.