Growing Pains, by Henry Handel Richardson

Three in a Row

Miss Ethel marched ahead carrying the candle, and so cupping it with her hand that the light fell full on her round, horn-rimmed spectacles, making these look like gigantic eyes.

“I’m sorry, girls,” said she, throwing open a door, “this is the best I can do for you — every other room’s full. But I know you won’t mind turning in together. May’s such a shrimp that you can put her between you and never know she’s there.”

Dutifully the three who followed at her heels chorused: “Oh, not at all,” “We shall manage,” “Very good of you to have us, Miss Ethel,” as instructed by their respective Mammas.

But once the door had shut on their hostess they gathered round the bed — a narrow half-tester — in which they were expected to lie three in a row, and let their real feelings out.

“The old toad! Playing us such a scurvy trick!”

“On such a hot night, tool”

“And when she wrote she’d have heaps of room!”

“It’s those Waugh girls from Bendigo that ‘ve done it. THEIR father’s a judge! But anything’s good enough for us.”

“I wish I hadn’t come,” piped Patty, the youngest, a short, fat girl of eleven.

“Oh, you! — with your bulk you’re safe for the lion’s share. But what did the old hag mean by her cheek about me?” snapped May, who had come to the age of desiring roundnesses. “A shrimp, indeed!”

“Don’t know I’m sure,” said thirteen-year-old Tetta, not quite truthfully. (May’s was just a case of the “girls from Bendigo” over again.) Tetta was getting rid of her clothes at top speed, peeling off her stockings, leaving one here, one there, her combinations on the floor where they fell. Then, holding her nightdress like a sail above her, she shot her arms into the sleeves, and was ready for bed while Patty was still conscientiously twisting a toothbrush round her gums, and May had got no further than loosening the buttons of her frock.

“Tetta! — you haven’t done your teeth . . . or anything.”

“Don’t want to. And I’m giving my teeth a rest. A dentist told some one I know it wore teeth out if you were always brushing them,” gave back Tetta easily.

The “Lazy Liar!” this evoked was cut through by her shrill: “Oh Lord, girls, FEATHERS!” as she stooped to examine the build of the bed. A further discovery, however, Tetta kept to herself. This was that the bed had a distinct slope, out from the centre and down at the sides — she tried each in turn. And having let a few seconds elapse, for fear the others had noticed her wrigglings, she said mildly: “Look here, Mabs, if you like I’ll take the middle. I don’t mind being a bit crushed.”

“Oh, no, you don’t!” retorted May suspiciously, suspending her hair-brush. “I know what it means, my dear . . . when you’re so willing to oblige.” May was ratty with herself for being behind-hand — even that stupid Pat had raced her. But to go to bed PROPERLY meant almost as much work as getting up in the morning.

“Well, for goodness’ sake, put some biff into it. The mean bit of candle she’s given us won’t last for ever.

“No, I promised my mother to brush my hair twenty times every night and morning, and I’m not going to break my word for anyone,” said May dourly; and pounded away with upraised arm. At which young Patty, who in her efforts to come in second had rather scamped the prescribed “folding” of her clothes, suffered a pang of conscience, and turned back to refold them. But Tetta thought: though she brushed it a hundred times it would never be anything but bristly. Yes, that was just what it was like the bristles in a brush.

Now she and Pat lay stretched out, a sheet drawn over them, a hump of feathers between. Oh, it was a shabby pretence at a “double”— why, there was really hardly room for two. And when at last May came to join them — she had gargled her throat and cleaned her nails (just as if she was going to a party)— the rumpus began.

For Tetta said: “Blow out the candle first.” This stood on the dressing-table, and it would have fallen to her, who lay on that side, to rise and extinguish it. May, the goose, doing as she was told, had then to climb over and in between them in the dark. There was a moment of wild confusion: dozens of legs, a whole army of them, seemed to be trampling and kicking in an attempt to sort themselves out. Tetta had taken a grip of the head-curtain, and so kept her balance, but Patty, unprepared, found nothing to hold to on the bare side of the bed, and, as May finally and determinedly squeezed herself in, slid to the floor with a cry and a thump.

“You pig!” from Tetta. “You did that on purpose.”

“Well, what next I wonder! . . . after you two had taken all the room. Anyhow, now you’ll just HAVE to get up and make a light again.”

Grumblingly Tetta swung out her feet and groped her unknown way. “Now where has that table gone to? Oh, DAMN!” For, coming suddenly and unexpectedly upon it, her elbow caught the candlestick and sent this flying. There was a crash; and the candle could be heard rolling over the bare boards.

“Now you’ve done it, you clumsy ass! Ten to one old Ethel ‘ll come pouncing in on us.”

“If I get a bit of china in my foot it’ll be me who pounces.” Tetta was on her knees, cautiously fumbling for the matches. These found and one struck, the candle was recovered; but the candlestick lay in fragments.

“Spill some grease on the floor and stick the candle to it,” suggested May.

With some difficulty Tetta contrived this hold, clutching her nightgown to her out of reach of the flame. Then she crossed to the other side of the bed to see to Patty, who still lay where she had fallen, snivelling over a bruised arm and a hefty bump on the forehead.

As there was no butter handy, Tetta poured water into the basin, soaked a sponge and held it to the wounded place, to keep it from swelling — and over this the floor got rather wet and messy, for the half-burnt, guttering candle, some three inches high, shed its meagre circlet Of light only on the opposite side of the room — then prodded the bruised arm to try for a broken bone. Patty was QUITE sure she had.

“Nonsense, Pat, it’s only been your funny-bone,” and Tetta rose to her feet.

But the sight of May sprawling meanwhile at her ease in the centre of the bed was too much for her. “It’s all your greedy fault, pushing and shoving like that so that you can lie on your back. Well, you can’t! There’s only one way to lie and that’s spoons — on our same sides. Now then, Pat!”

But Pat whimpered, if she had to sleep on the outside she’d never sleep at all, she’d always be expecting the whole night to fall out again. She’d rather lie on the floor.

“Well, why not? That’s quite a good idea,” struck in May brightly. “Then we should all have room.”

“I wouldn’t, Pat,” said Tetta emphatically, with another glance at May’s luxurious recumbency. “At least not if you don’t want tarantulas crawling over you in the night . . . and perhaps centipedes, too. There’s sure to be squads about this dirty old house.”

Before she finished speaking, Patty had leapt on to the bed, her bare feet drawn up out of danger’s way.

“Now then Mabs milady, shunt! You’ve just GOT to let her in the middle. Are you ready?”— and with the same breath Tetta puffed out the candle and sprang to secure what little space was left.

With due care they arranged themselves, back fitted to front; and for a few seconds, tightly wedged though they were, it seemed as if there might be peace.

Then May said: “My mother always says it’s dangerous to go to sleep on your left-hand side. It makes your heart swell up. And you could die in the night.”

There was a faint squeal from Patty. “Here, let me . . . I’m not going to”— and the bed rocked under her determined efforts to turn to her right.

“Well, if she does, we’ve all got to. ARE you ready?” sighed Tetta once more.

Gingerly and in unison they heaved.

But: “Tetta, you’ve taken every bit of sheet!” from May.

“I haven’t!”

“You have!” And the sheet, reduced to a rope, was tugged violently to and fro. “If you think I’m going to lie with my back all bare. . . . It’s bad enough to have it hanging out over the edge.”

“The answer to that is, you shouldn’t have such a big behind.”

“It’s not! I haven’t!” cried May, justly indignant. “It’s not a scrap bigger than your own. Now if you had Pat’s running into you, you MIGHT talk! Her’s is simply enormous; it reaches down to my legs.”

“Oh, it DOESN’T!” wailed Patty, on the verge of tears again. “It’s NOT true — it’s NOT enormous.”

“Oh, shut up, you blubberer! What’s it matter if it is?” snapped Tetta, losing patience. “And anyhow the Turks admire them.” But the Turks were heathens, and Patty was not consoled. She lay chewing over her injuries, to which another was now added: “It’s no good . . . I simply can’t . . . I’m suffocating,” she said in a weak voice. “My head’s right down in the crack between the pillows. I haven’t ANY of my own.”

“Here, take half mine,” said Tetta, and shoved it towards her. May, who liked a pillow to herself, gave hers a hasty pull, which over-shot the mark. Down and out it slid, she, attempting a rescue, after it. “Ooh! I’m standing in water. The whole floor’s swimming.”

Said Tetta when order was once more restored: “The only thing to do ‘ll be to hold on. Here. Pat, you put your arm over me and round my stomach, and May hers round you. That’s it.”

In her case it answered. But May, seeking an extra firm grip, was unlucky enough to let her fingers stray on Patty’s front, and this was too much for the fat girl, who was ticklish. She began to squirm, and the more May tried to hold her fast the more she wriggled, screwing herself up, defending her middle with arms and elbows, fighting with her knees, all to the accompaniment of a shrill and unconquerable giggle.

The result was that May and Tetta found themselves standing one on each side of the bed.

“You’ll have to take the fool round her bally neck.”

“Well, then I shall probably strangle her in her sleep,” said May darkly as she climbed in again.

They linked themselves anew, and once more there was a brief spell of drowsy silence.

But it was, oh, such a hot night, and before long, out of the heat and the darkness, May’s voice was heard in a distracted: “But Pat! . . . you’re all wet.”

“I’m not, oh, I’m NOT!” tragically protested the one thus accused. Called abruptly back from a half-slumber, her mind in its confusion had jumped to the day of infant peccadilloes.

“Idiot! I didn’t mean that. But we’re simply sticking together like melting jellies.”

“And oh, I do want a drink so, dreadfully badly! I think I’ll die soon if I don’t have one,” moaned Patty.

“That comes of being so fat. — Fetch her one, Mabs,” ordered Tetta, stifling the girlish equivalent of an oath, as she applied yet another match to the stub of candle.

But May tilted the jug in vain. “I believe yes, you HAVE! . . . you’ve used up every drop. Well, Tetta Riley, if you don’t deserve to come to want some day!”

“There couldn’t have been more than a cupful to start with. I suppose the tank’s going dry. Besides, who cleaned their teeth I’d like to know? — Well, Pat, there’s nothing else for it, you’ll have to suck the sponge.”

And this Patty did, to the encouraging remark from Tetta that it was only her own dirt she was eating.

But the problem of sleep had become a very real one. And the night seemed to grow hotter with every minute that passed.

Here Tetta had a new idea: they should try one of them lying crossways at the foot. Yes . . . that was all very well . . . but which? And over this there ensued a wordy dispute. Patty was too fat; she’d stick out too much . . . besides being so hot to put your feet against. Tetta, on the other hand, or so she argued, was too tall: “My head’d hang over one side, my legs the other.” No, it must be May or no one, and sourly and unwillingly the victim dragged herself to the bottom of the bed and lay athwart it. But she couldn’t possibly sleep without a pillow . . . what was she to. do for a pillow?

“Why, make a bundle of your clothes and ram them under your head.”

“My clothes? That I’ve got to wear to-morrow? All crumpled and creased? Think I see myself!”

“Oh very well then, take mine! Thank the Lord I’m not such a darned old fad as you.” And by the last flicker of the dying candle, Tetta darted round the room, redeeming her scattered undergarments, her skirt, her petticoat . . . and not omitting her prickly suspenders.

“There. Now turn over so that you face the foot.”

“No, I mustn’t do that. It’d mean lying on my left side.”

“What tommy-rot! Not if you put your blinking head the other way round!” cried Tetta in exasperation.

But this May could not be got to see; or else she would not see it; and, by now both dog-tired and half-silly for want of sleep, they barked and bit their way through what gradually deteriorated into a kind of geometrical wrangle, and ended by Tetta snarling: “It’s easy to see YOU’VE never done any Euclid!”

This was a spiteful thrust; for May had failed at close of term to get her remove, and so to reach a class in which she, too, would have been held capable of writing QUOD ERAT DEMONSTRANDUM. And ordinarily, for decency’s sake, you did not allude to her misfortune. But to-night bonds were loosed.

After this a silence fell . . . but not the silence of peace. May, galled to the quick, lay revolving a means of revenge.

Presently to ejaculate: “Oh, Tetta . . . oh, your feet! . . . take them away . . . oh, PUH!”

“What the . . . what in the name of Christmas do you mean by that? When I have had two baths today! day!”

“Then all I can say is, your SHOES must be high!”

In answer to this, involuntarily, but very fiercely, the libelled foot shot out in a straight kick. It landed on May’s nose — the soft and gristly part that is so tender. With a scream May sat up and clapped her hands to it, and now, thoroughly hurt and unnerved, fell to sobbing: “Oh, my nose, my nose! You’ve broken it, you beast — you dirty beast! It’s bleeding I can feel the blood dripping from it.”

Yet another of the precious matches went in verifying this. True enough a few drops of blood WERE oozing, and the upper lip had had a nasty jab against the top teeth. Once more the sponge was requisitioned, and its last remaining moisture squeezed from

In compensation for her injuries May now demanded to be allowed to occupy Tetta’s place at the head of the bed.

“Wait. First I’m going to find out what the time is. We seem to have been here for years. It must surely be nearly morning now;” and with this, Tetta opened the door and crept on tiptoe into the passage, where a clock hung.

Returning, she said hoarsely and dramatically: “Look here, you two, it’s not even half-past twelve yet! There’s still six blooming hours before we can get up . . . can possibly get up. And the candle’s done, and there’s no more water, and only two matches left. I’m fed up to the neck . . . I can’t stick it a minute longer. I’m going out.”

“Going out? What do you mean?”

“Where to? What for?”

“What do you think? On the verandah, of course. To get cool. This room’s as hot as . . . yes, as hot as HELL . . . when you come back into it.”

“Tetta Riley! . . . your language! If only my mother could hear you!”

“Oh, bing, bang and bung your mother! I’m sick of the very sound of her.”

“I’ll tell her every word you’ve said.”

“Oh, go to — to Sunday School!”

“I do. And I will. And I’ll tell them, too. And you can just GET out on your old verandah, and stop there. It’ll be jolly good riddance to bad rubbish.”

“I’m going. But you’re coming, too. Think I mean to leave you two snoring here while I kick my heels outside? Oh, no, my dears, not me! Up you get and double-quick! Both of you.”

And meekly, without a further word, the two so commanded obeyed. For when Tetta, the easy-going, spoke like this — in what was known as her “strong-minded” voice — they were her humblest servants. Nor did they resent her mastery. Patty the sheep invariably trotted tail-down after her elders; but May, for all her spirit, was at heart Tetta’s devoted crony; and as a rule each made a friendly allowance for the other’s failings: a slommicky laziness on the one hand, an ultra-prim exactitude on the other.

Now, at Tetta’s direction, skirts were slipped over night-dresses, jackets buttoned on top. And turning their backs on the hideously crumpled battlefield of the bed, they spread a blanket on the verandah’s edge, laid pillows and bolster on this, and stretched themselves out, three in a row, with a sheet atop of them.

Oh! the relief it was, to escape from those fondly clinging feathers, those steep, sloping sides. Hard the boards might be, as hard as your own bones, but they were at least dead level. Besides that, you were free from the heat of your neighbour’s body, and could toss and turn as you chose.

The sweetness, too, of the summer-night air, after the shut-upness of the stuffy room. Pat, who had staggered tipsily in her companions’ wake, drew but a couple of full breaths and was fast asleep. May, correctly arranged on her right side, took longer: privately, she thought what they were doing not quite NICE, and wondered what her mother would say when told of it.

But Tetta lay wakeful. For one thing, it was so light. Not from the moon, for there wasn’t any; it was the stars that did it. The sky was as thick with stars as . . . well, she who lived on the seaboard had never seen anything like this bush sky: it was just as if some one had taken diamonds by the handful, no, the bucketful, and flung them out without caring — hundreds and thousands of diamonds, all sharp and white and glittering, with hardly an inch of space between, and what there was, gone a pale dove-grey.

“Oh, gosh, what tons! I never knew there WERE so many stars, did you?”

But there was no reply. So she just lay there, with her hands clasped under her neck, and stared up at the sky till her eyes smarted. And then something else came into her head — a familiar thought, and one she often amused herself with. It had to do with her own identity. Did there, she was given to wondering, somewhere or anywhere on earth exist a replica of herself? Was there, hidden away in some corner of the globe, another girl called Tetta Riley, thirteen years old, with a stub nose with freckles on it, and all her other little funniosities, who had grown up as she grew up, and who felt and thought like her? Herself, finding it hard to believe in her own uniqueness, she was inclined to think there might, there must be; and when, as now, she had nothing better to do, she would send her mind round the world in a fanciful search after her second self. To-night, in face of this starry splendour, she let it stray to what she believed to be “other worlds,” as well, chasing her thought among the stars and planets and the Milky Way, leaping from star to star . . . over gaps of palest grey . . . till her head spun, her eyes dazzled; and sleep, descending, gathered her too into the fold.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33