Fiction

THE CHILDREN’S FACES

It was so pleasant up there on the roof in the hot sun. Nothing to bother you except the sound of the kids at play

GAVIN S. CASEY April 15 1948
Fiction

THE CHILDREN’S FACES

It was so pleasant up there on the roof in the hot sun. Nothing to bother you except the sound of the kids at play

GAVIN S. CASEY April 15 1948

THE CHILDREN’S FACES

It was so pleasant up there on the roof in the hot sun. Nothing to bother you except the sound of the kids at play

GAVIN S. CASEY

I WAS fixing the bad corner of Dawson’s roof— the place on the main gable that the cyclone carried away in 1945—and sucking in the Aussie sunshine. It was good after the war-torn places I’d been during the past six years. The sunshine was hot and dry, pouring from every corner of a sky vast enough to cover a whole cluster of worlds and blue like the glints in molten steel. The warmth sank into me and beamed and twinkled back at me from the corrugated iron and I was happy.

The township sprawled like toy blocks children had dropped along the banks of the creek. The stream was dry, except for the deepest pools, the way it always is in January. The houses were wood and iron, most of them small and bare with sunbaked yards. Their fences staggered and leaned right over to the ground. They weren’t fences to keep anything out, just symbols of the achievement of a grubby little corner of the earth by each householder for himself and his family.

The township was ugly, the way all Australian townships are ugly compared with the gracious little cottages that time has made part of a green earth in Greece and England. But the willows that drooped into the cattle pool, and the tall gums in the big grove that towered over Reilly’s Dairy were beautiful. The cattle in the east-side paddocks were fat and solemn and complacent and the track that cut sharply over the gentle slope of the hill was like a ribbon pressed down in the flesh of a young girl’s shoulder.

Flowers blazed unexpectedly along rickety fences and against iron walls and although my mind told me that the township and the houses were ugly, it all looked good. The sunshine, saturating everything, was particularly fine. Cold and snow and the steamy, rainy heat of the tropics are all right for those who are born to them or have become used to them, but I’d never been able to buy anything as beautiful as the Australian sunshine I was getting for nothing while I fixed Dawson’s leaky roof.

EDWIN FOSTER, from the chaff and grain merchant’s, walked by beneath me and I called out to him.

“Hullo, Ted!” Edwin said. “What are you doing up there?”

It seemed obvious what I was doing, but I told him I was fixing the roof and enjoying the sunshine and then the expression on his face told me what he was going to say next.

“Well, when you’ve had enough of fiddling around with jobs like that come and see me,” he said. “I don’t say I can start you full time any day you ask, but I can find something more regular than odd jobs for a beginning and work you in permanent later.”

“Thank you, Mr. Foster,” I told him.

Edwin walked away, looking a bit startled at being called Mr. Foster and I felt mean about it. But it was the only defense I had against the patronage I could hear in people’s voices—even the voices of good sorts like Ed Foster whom I’d known all my life—when they offered me jobs. There was resentment in my mind, not very active or very near the surface, but somewhere in the back, oozing out in little bits of sarcasm which I was generally ashamed of straight away.

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The Children's Faces

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after Ed had gone the sunshine seemed dimmer and bare iron walls caught my eye more than the flowers that grew against them. But warmth and wellbeing flooded back before long and I had fun, straddling Dawson’s gable with my new claw hammer in my hand and my overall pockets full of the big, springheaded nails that are made for roofing. Odd jobs in the sunshine were all I wanted just now, whatever came later and whatever ideas I’d had in the past.

In a few moments there was an uproar of shrill noise and half the kids in town emptied themselves off the roadway into Dawson’s back yard in an excited bunch. They were only the little shavers ranging from fat, solemn babies who could hardly stagger to nippers of nine or ten. They were brown and strong, with solid limbs. I thought again of the sunshine and how good it was for children at play and for me working unhurriedly on top of the roof. The children didn’t see me, of course, and I rolled over and lay with the heat boring into my back and my nose sticking over the edge of the gable and watched them.

They were playing cops and robbers, at least the older ones were. The toddlers were just letting out yells and getting in the way. It was a great game, with nice flexible rules that anyone altered whenever it suited him. I thought it was interesting that kids should play cops and robbers, in spite of the battle their country had just had with the Japs and Germans.

If somebody had suggested it I suppose they’d have played Aussies and Japs, or something like that. But nobody had suggested it and when excited young minds are a long way from the real world, games don’t need to be topical. They just need goodies and baddies and the fun is on. Anyway, I enjoyed watching them, neglecting my work while the sunshine soaked into my back. All the township except the children in Dawson’s yard was quiet.

WHAT’S THAT you’re fiddlin’ with, sergeant?” young Johnny Bryce asked Len Goodbold, the storekeeper’s son. Len was digging with his thumb at some imaginary gadget on the broomstick that was his imaginary rifle.

When Johnny Bryce spoke he put into his voice and attitude all the authority that belongs to better clothes and a better education ahead, and the certainty of a better job. He was the doctor’s kid and from my perch I thought I could see in his little face all the authority and assurance and impatience with people that scowled at everybody in the district from under Doctor Bryce’s big eyebrows. I didn’t know if Johnny was supposed to be the inspector on the police side, while little Len was only a sergeant, but he was certainly trying to take charge of the game. It was

comical, the way his tiny, fair, sunbleached eyebrows took on the shape of his father’s, the way his cheeks that still had some of their baby fat seemed to droop into the jowls of a hanging judge or a Member of Parliament. It tickled me so much that I had a job not to laugh and let them know where I was.

“Putting back me safety catch, chief,” said little Len. “I wanna save me lead for those robbers, an’ not go puttin’ any of it into our own men.”

Young Johnny stayed quiet for a while and the baffled look that came over his face was just like the expression on his old man the time Darky Edgerton kidded he had appendicitis for a bet and tried to convince the doctor he had the symptoms. You could see he was tricked and you could see in Len’s face the knowledge that he’d put something over. Len was a gentle kid, a sensitive little tyke, and whenever I saw his big eyes and his red-lipped, changeable, eager-to-please mouth I was reminded of his mother. She was a girl I’d never got within a hundred miles of marrying, but I sometimes thought I might have married her, if a thousand things hadn’t happened and I hadn’t been such a fool. I could see that there was a lot of his dad in Len too—the pride in being the guy who knew about gadgets and mechanical things and the rigidity behind an apparently easy-going nature that jutted out when he was pushed around too much.

“What’s a safety catch?” asked Johnny, disgustedly, bluffing as hard as he could. “I don’t know anything about safety catches. Never heard such rot.”

“They stop a rifle from firing,” Len explained, triumphantly.

“Stop a rifle from firing!” John jeered. “Who wants a rifle that doesn’t fire? Rifles are made to fire. Who wants something to stop ’em from doing their job?”

The other kids were all gathered round and the game was stopped. The children’s faces interested me very much.

Bright-faced Kitty Mullane was scuttering around just like her mother did over township gossip, just as interested in any sort of human behavior or situation, taking no sides but absorbed in the drama for its own sake. Bill Brown, the heavily built, ten-year old who lived with his parents behind the bank, was holding the grimy fist of his little brother and his forehead was corrugated with thought. Percy Potter was weak but eager, not so much like his father as his Uncle Joe; whatever Johnny said or did was all right with him, because strong, confident Johnny had said or done it. Danny McLarty was impatient because he was out of the limelight, with words trembling on his lips that would bring him into the argument as soon as he had a chance to say them. He was just like big Danny every time there was a meeting of the Show Society or the Druids Lodge.

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The backgrounds of all the children were not so clearly written in their faces, but there was something of it in every one.

fT FASCINATED and elated me to lie in the sun, watching the children’s faces, seeing in them mv neighbors and friends in the township, the kind, wellmeaning people among whom I had grown up. There were weaknesses in the kiddies’ faces and their parents too, but collectively they were two genera| tions of decent, honest people—the kind who fought wars with reckless i courage, but never began them. The elders, I thought, had been scarred and j twisted a little in their struggle with life, but really they were like the ! children, curious and innocent and i friendly. I lay looking down at them I and the thought was as warming as the j sunshine itself.

The youngsters, most of whom had never heard of a safety catch either, were inclined to side with Johnny and sneer at little Len. Hut Len was strong because he knew he was right.

“Yer mad!” Len shouted. “What about accidents, getting through fences an’ things? That’s what th’ safety catch is for, see? T’ stop guns from goin’ off when you don’t want to shoot anything. T’ stop accidents.”

“Aw, bunk,” said Johnny. “A man’s j careful goin’ through fences. Nobody i but a fool points his gun where it j might do harm when he’s getting through a fence. Only a fool needs a safety catch an’ if your gun’s got a safety catch it’s a fool’s gun an’ you’re a fool.”

“My dad told me,” Len yelled, get! ting red. “My dad told me all good rifles had safety catches. You press ’em the other way when you don’t want to fire an’ they’re safe. Army rifles have safety catches. My dad’s fortyfour’s got a safety catch. Do you say it’s a fool’s rifle an’ my dad’s a fool?” “Your dad!” said Johnny, with contempt. “Of course he’s a fool an’ if he’s got a gun with a safety catch that proves it.”

I could see from the roof that Len wanted to hit Johnny, but he’d have to be worked up a bit more before he’d start a fight to defend his dad. And it looked as if he’d lost the chance. Not just Johnny, but the whole mob, was turning against him. It horrified me to see the children’s faces changing. They started to dance and chant. “Safety catches, bah!” they sang at little Len, with reasonless rhythm, like a tribe of tiny savages. “Safety catches, bah!” Even the toddlers tried to join in, with clumsy movements and thick, gleeful, angry noises that were the best they could do to imitate the bigger ones. I began to feel sick, lying in the burning heat on the iron roof.

“My dad’s got a twenty-two, see, and it hasn’t got a safety catch,” Kitty Mullane screamed at Len above the din. Her face was sharp, now— sharp and hard like her mother’s the time she’d gone from door to door with the story about the schoolteacher and the stationmaster.

“Well, it’s not much of a gun, that’s all I can say,” Len roared. But it was no good, in the face of their collective contempt.

ON THE roof the fiery-hot corrugated iron seemed to be pulsing, heaving in the heat waves, like a ship’s deck. I had to hold on to the ridge of the gable. I felt the heat melting my brain and I knew I’d slip if I didn’t hold on. But I couldn’t take my eyes off the children, whose faces wrere changing.

Johnny still looked like his father. He looked righteous and unforgiving

and arrogantly sure of himself. Percy Potter’s weak grin had lit up a glitter of cruel anticipation somewhere behind his eyes. They all looked like their parents—like their parents at times when it was best not to remember how friends and neighbors had looked—but they looked like other people, too. Little Danny reminded me of a Jap prisoner we had once, who cringed and bowed and trembled, but was quiet and glittering when the Zeros came over our camp. My head was aching and on the heaving, rolling roof that burned my fingers and my body 1 felt sick in the stomach.

The kids had stopped chanting and Johnny was giving Len the coward’s blow, the last challenge to a fair fight. Hut Len had lost his chance, really, and now all the faces around him were hostile. They looked like the faces of an enemy platoon we’d come upon over a hill once, when they were dealing with stray wounded. Johnny’s was hard and triumphant, with the young softness washed out of it. I blacked out for a moment and when I could see again they were all chasing little Len, yelling, and the boy was running, with tears streaming from his eyes. I knew what I ought to do, but the roof was heaving and the heat rested on me like a weight of bodies. The only way for me to get down was to let go, so I let go.

I tumbled down the long gable and bumped over the ridge of the veranda and hit the ground with a thump that knocked the wind out of me, but halfway brought my wits back. It was only halfway, though, and when the children came screaming to see what was wrong I crouched against the veranda steps, afraid. They were wide-eyed, now, curious about something new, completely through with baiting Len and eager to do what they could. But to me they were noise and violence and hate and fear.

Syd Dawson came running from around the back somewhere with the man who worked for him.

“He fell right off the roof!” the man said, gaping.

“Lord!” Syd said, white in the face. “I should never have put him on a job like that. I should have known what would happen.”

They started to carry me inside, through a swaying, menacing world. I felt the last of my consciousness oozing away. I felt the relief you feel, when it has happened so many times, because you know when you wake up it will be all over and everything will be normal again. But before I blanked right out I heard a few words more.

“Heaven knows what we’ll be able to do with the poor guy now,” Syd Dawson said. “He gets worse all the time, instead of better.”

“That’s right, Syd,” his man said, eagerly. “It ain’t your fault at all, whatever way you look at it. I thought there’d be no place better an’ safer for a shell-shock case than th’ township. No shriekin’ trams, no sudden noises to remind him. There wasn’t a thing.”

“No,” Syd said, unhappily. “That’s the trouble. He’s done it this time with nothing to set him off at all. No noise; no violence, just the cows grazin’ in the paddocks and the kids playin’ in the yard.” ★

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