Saturday short story: The closed fist, by Eileen Duggan

"She sold the eggs. He was driven to finding new nests and eating them raw. She fed the harvesters with such weak tea and watery scones that he was shamed": a short story from the late 1920s, published in a posthumous new collection by Marlborough writer Eileen Duggan. Photograph by Peter Black.

She had married him without love but as he was slow and simple, he did not see it for quite six months after he had given her his name, just as he did not guess that she was five years older. Her hair was fuzzy and fuzzy hair always has an immature look. In reality she was forty to his thirty-five.

He had gone to their little street and from across her counter she saw his indecision, the big clumsy fingers folding and unfolding a dirty little square of paper. She sauntered across to the door and leant against the jamb. He looked at her, pushed his hat back on his brow, crumpled the paper in his spreading fist and walked away, looking back at her over his shoulder. She was scared that his diffidence might carry him out of sight so she waved to him. He came back, hesitantly, warily, like a dog sniffing at an unknown’s summons.

"Could I give you any directions? Was you looking for some place?" Dumbly he opened his fist and yielded up the dirty fragment. "One Three One. There’re three families there. Wich was you wantin’?"

"None of them. Me mother was born there and I thought I’d take a look at it. I s’pose it’d be the same ’ouse?" He was plainly hoping for a negative.

"Course it’s the same ’ouse! Our ’ouses last."

Something stirred in him, some huge exultation. "Well, thank God she died in something better anyway." Which caught her attention at once.

"You’re colonial, ain’t you?"

"New Zealand’s where I come from."

"You don’t say. And your mother lived over there?"

She pointed to the slatternly face of One Three One. "Come in and see my old woman. She might ’ave know ’er."

"That’s true, but – "

"But what?" Her eyes flashed.

"Well, I bin told not to have any truck with strange women."

"Oh, that’s all right." She was suddenly warm and friendly. "I’d sooner see you that way too. I would reely. But Mum and me’s different. We’re particular."

So, he followed her past the little curtain into the living room, the chief furniture in which was a massive woman in a massive armchair. She rose to greet him and she did not lumber. It was healthy fat, he thought, and her face was a face you’d take to after one blink at it.

"Oo’s this, Nell?" Her tone was friendly but reserved. Nell looked guilty and explained rather breathlessly. "Course I don’t know ’is mother. Don’t know what you’re thinking of. ’E’s over fifteen, twice it, and that’s all we’ve been ’ere, fifteen years." This might have been withering but for the warm honesty of her look.

"I jest thought you might’ve known," said Nell, fumbling with the drawer of her sewing machine.

Her mother looked at her shrewdly. "I s’pose you wanted me to know." She turned to him with the mischief of an elephant to see if he saw the joke. He did. And he saw too that they were boon spirits.

The next time he came he was laden with delicacies. She beamed. "You’ve got the ’eart of an ox. I’m a bit that way meself. But Nell ’ere, she’d split the rim er sixpence."

"Gawd knows I got ter," said Nell, bitter at this showing up of her stints. "Oo’s goin’ ter think er tomorrow in this ’ouse if I don’t. We gotter live."

"Oho! Spitfire!" said the old woman, billowing with mirth.

"I’ve lived a long time and I ain’t died yet." Then, repenting, "She’s a good girl all the same and I dunno what I’d do without her."

"P’raps you won’t have to do without ’er."

"What’d’y mean?" Nell was furious. She thought he sensed her failure to charm and the thought was a thorn in her silk. He seemed so innocent, so easy.

"Well, I don’t blame you. P’raps I was getting a bit above myself and counting my chickens."

"What d’yer mean?" But it was a different tone.

"Well, it’s soon to speak." His hard-felt hat was crumpled like silk in his big fists. "I haven’t got as much as I had. Had to take a fair sized mortgage out before I left, but the rent’ll pay some of it."

"Why d’yer ’ave to mortgage?" Nell leaned forward with her keen chin upthrust.

"Three floods and there was a corner next to me I wanted to buy."

"Bad business buyin’ on mortgage money," said Nell sharply.

Her mother looked at her rather sternly. It was wonderful how swiftly dignity could follow mirth on that homely old face. "Now! Now! Don’t start haggling money on your courtship!"

"She just doesn’t understand," he said with that giant gentleness. "I wouldn’t have got another chance." Had Nell loved him that wouldn’t have mattered. As it was, she thought the conquest too easy and the lack of his ability to see her shrewdness appalling. She’d show him, she reflected – and he couldn’t have been much rushed in his own country to go proposing to her on a second meeting. Her inferiority complex was scarcely salved by such an offer.

However, they became engaged and of the two, old Mrs Cotterell liked him the better. They got on like a house afire.

He never tired of describing to her the farm they were going to.

"They say they will give us chaps a gratooity now that the war’s over and that’ll be ready money, but me mother had everything nice – you’ll kind-a-like her things – at least, I think so." He tipped up a vase and Nell scolded him while she ran for a duster.

Neither of them paid any heed. They were gazing at each other happily. "And ain’t I lucky," said Mrs Cotterell, "I always liked the sea."

"You ain’t been far enough to tell," said Nell. And as it happened, she did not go far enough. Before the departure she broke her leg – she that had always been proud of moving so lightly.

"Seems I’m not to go, son. Seems like a sign." Her big face quivered like a sick baby’s. And to all his pleading, "Shush! Shush! You go on. You’ve got the ticket. You gotter go. You can say what you like but it’s a warnin’. It’s a sign."

And they sailed alone. Nell whined and nagged. She’d been a fool to marry. Yes, she had. And her own mother left to strangers. He couldn’t know how she missed her.

"Can’t I?" he said with such heaviness that she softened and was more like the Nell of the Mews. "Don’t worry, Nell. We’ll go back and get her. We’ll save up for her." Then as she was still snuffling, "She’ll come, don’t worry. That was only the shock of her leg."

But once in New Zealand he found that saving to him and saving to Nell were two different things. Her mother continued to refuse to come. "It was a 'sine'," she reiterated. And the "sine" was confirmed by a fortune teller who warned her against the water. Her letters, brief and badly spelt, yet brought her to them with a massive brooding. She yearned over them like a Great Dane over its litter. But come she would not. It was not selfishness. The "sine" was for them as well as for her. It meant leave them alone to work out their destiny.

Nell’s method of working it out was to pinch. In London as she knew it Joe would be useless. They must have enough money to be able to live on its interest if they were to return, and return they would. She was determined on it. She had always the look of an aviator searching horizons. She never let him rest. She gave him "Mortgage! Mortgage!" till he said it in his sleep. And there wasn’t any need for it. They were doing well. The farm would be clear in five years if she were only patient. It was in reality cleared in three, but by what means. She gave her visitors bread and scrape in a countryside that flaunted cooks. She put only skimmed milk on the table. She sold the butter. She sold the eggs. He was driven to finding new nests and eating them raw. She fed the harvesters with such weak tea and watery scones that he was shamed – he, whose mother had given clothes’ basketfuls of cakes to the socials.

She refused all collectors. "Can’t afford it!" She would buy no clothes and double-patched his shirts. But the climax came when she took in sewing. He, a prosperous farmer in a prosperous country, had a wife who took in sewing!

"Yes! Abuse me! Now that you’ve got me away from me mother," she said when his slow wrath broke.

He turned dumbly away.

In three years it was cleared. He came joyously home from the lawyer. Under his arm was a parcel. "No more saving, old girl. Here’s silk for a frock for you!" She looked sideways at the bright blue of the silk, but her mind was in London. She came and caught his coat lapels.

"How about us selling now, Joe, and goin’ Home?"

"Sell? Sell me land when I’ve just cleared it? You’re mad, woman." Through the window he saw the blue fork of Mount Strachan and the green of the Sugar-loaf. Then his eye dropped onto his own plumping barley. "No, by God! No! I’ve stood your whining and I’ve stood your skimping, but I won’t stand that."

And he stormed out in his best clothes to the paddock. There he fought out his battle, and by night-time he came in calm. "I s’pose a trip home wouldn’t do you. There’s m’ gratooity that I kept for emergencies?"

"What use’d a trip be? She wouldn’t come out with us. You don’t know what it’s like bein’ without ’er. I b’lieve you were glad when you separated us."

For one molten instant his eye blazed. "Why! I married you to get her here. She was the spit of me own mother. I thought you must be like her in some ways seeing she bred you."

They stared at each other in silence. It was said forever. Shock for once deprived her of speech. "You married me . . ." she began.

"Well, you was a bit tart, I could see that, but she was me mother in the flesh almost – that way er giving you a dig sometimes and that way of throwing up her hands when anything amused her. And the way that she treated that drunk that came to the door, not snarling at him." His voice trailed off and she saw in a flash the kitchen at Home and those two with faces alight and easy.

"Well, you’ll be all the readier to go then," she said, brittly. "She wouldn’t say to sell the farm. She’s not the kind."

There is a praise that is pleading. She set her face.

"All right," he said. "Next week I’ll see Griffiths." Griffiths was the town land-agent.

That was the wretchedest week of her life. Strange thoughts rocked her. He never made any further reference to it nor did she. At the end of the week he told her it would be another week before he had things in order to sell. In some curious way she was glad of the respite. Now that it was done, she began to remember her former life. Here she was Mrs Davis, wife of one of the most promising farmers. There she was a seamstress scraping for rent and margarine. How would Joe stand that sort of life after the plough and the binder? A bit different the Mews and the paddocks! When she thought of his agony on the day of the sale, she felt the wringing of the heart. Could she do it?

Two days later the answer came to her. She saw him standing with his dray in the yard. He went forward to let the horses out of the harness and velvety old Bloss turned, with nostrils as plushy as a snap dragon, and bunted his hand. She saw his face and knew that she loved him and that she could torture him no more.

At that instant a telegram was thrust into her hand by a child who had come in by the front gate. "Tulligram, Missus Davis."

She read it blindly and ran stumbling to the yard. "Joe! Joe! Mum’s dead!"

He put his big arm round her. "Well, now! Easy, Nell, easy girl."

"But wasn’t I like her?" she said, staring with stuck lashes. "Yes! She always had sense," he said; but his eyes matched hers in tears.

From the newly published The Stories of Eileen Duggan (Victoria University Press, $35). Next week's short story is by Wellington author Jan Logan.

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