Pearl Button swung on the little gate in front of the House of Boxes. It was the early afternoon of a sunshiny day with little winds playing hide-and-seek in it. They blew Pearl Button’s pinafore frill into her mouth, and they blew the street dust all over the House of Boxes. Pearl watched it — like a cloud — like when mother peppered her fish and the top of the pepper-pot came off. She swung on the little gate, all alone, and she sang a small song. Two big women came walking down the street. One was dressed in red and the other was dressed in yellow and green. They had pink handkerchiefs over their heads, and both of them carried a big flax basket of ferns. They had no shoes and stockings on, and they came walking along, slowly, because they were so fat, and talking to each other and always smiling. Pearl stopped swinging, and when they saw her they stopped walking. They looked and looked at her and then they talked to each other, waving their arms and clapping their hands together. Pearl began to laugh.
The two women came up to her, keeping close to the hedge and looking in a frightened way towards the House of Boxes.
“Hallo, little girl!” said one.
Pearl said, “Hallo!”
“You all alone by yourself?”
“Where’s your mother?”
“In the kitching, ironing-because-its-Tues-day.”
The women smiled at her and Pearl smiled back. “Oh,” she said, “haven’t you got very white teeth indeed! Do it again.”
The dark women laughed, and again they talked to each other with funny words and wavings of the hands. “What’s your name?” they asked her.
“You coming with us, Pearl Button? We got beautiful things to show you,” whispered one of the women. So Pearl got down from the gate and she slipped out into the road. And she walked between the two dark women down the windy road, taking little running steps to keep up, and wondering what they had in their House of Boxes.
They walked a long way. “You tired?” asked one of the women, bending down to Pearl. Pearl shook her head. They walked much further. “You not tired?” asked the other woman. And Pearl shook her head again, but tears shook from her eyes at the same time and her lips trembled. One of the women gave over her flax basket of ferns and caught Pearl Button up in her arms, and walked with Pearl Button’s head against her shoulder and her dusty little legs dangling. She was softer than a bed and she had a nice smell — a smell that made you bury your head and breathe and breathe it . . .
They set Pearl Button down in a log room full of other people the same colour as they were — and all these people came close to her and looked at her, nodding and laughing and throwing up their eyes. The woman who had carried Pearl took off her hair ribbon and shook her curls loose. There was a cry from the other women, and they crowded close and some of them ran a finger through Pearl’s yellow curls, very gently, and one of them, a young one, lifted all Pearl’s hair and kissed the back of her little white neck. Pearl felt shy but happy at the same time. There were some men on the floor, smoking, with rugs and feather mats round their shoulders. One of them made a funny face at her and he pulled a great big peach out of his pocket and set it on the floor, and flicked it with his finger as though it were a marble. It rolled right over to her. Pearl picked it up. “Please can I eat it?” she asked. At that they all laughed and clapped their hands, and the man with the funny face made another at her and pulled a pear out of his pocket and sent it bobbling over the floor. Pearl laughed. The women sat on the floor and Pearl sat down too. The floor was very dusty. She carefully pulled up her pinafore and dress and sat on her petticoat as she had been taught to sit in dusty places, and she ate the fruit, the juice running all down her front.
“Oh!” she said in a very frightened voice to one of the women, “I’ve spilt all the juice!
“That doesn’t matter at all,” said the woman, patting her cheek. A man came into the room with a long whip in his hand. He shouted something. They all got up, shouting, laughing, wrapping themselves up in rugs and blankets and feather mats. Pearl was carried again, this time into a great cart, and she sat on the lap of one of her women with the driver beside her. It was a green cart with a red pony and a black pony. It went very fast out of the town. The driver stood up and waved the whip round his head. Pearl peered over the shoulder of her woman. Other carts were behind like a procession. She waved at them. Then the country came. First fields of short grass with sheep on them and little bushes of white flowers and pink briar rose baskets — then big trees on both sides of the road — and nothing to be seen except big trees. Pearl tried to look through them but it was quite dark. Birds were singing. She nestled closer in the big lap. The woman was warm as a cat, and she moved up and down when she breathed, just like purring. Pearl played with a green ornament round her neck, and the woman took the little hand and kissed each of her fingers and then turned it over and kissed the dimples. Pearl had never been happy like this before. On the top of a big hill they stopped. The driving man turned to Pearl and said, “Look, look!” and pointed with his whip.
And down at the bottom of the hill was something perfectly different — a great big piece of blue water was creeping over the land. She screamed and clutched at the big woman, “What is it, what is it?”
“Why,” said the woman, “it’s the sea.”
“Will it hurt us — is it coming?”
“Ai-e, no, it doesn’t come to us. It’s very beautiful. You look again.”
Pearl looked. “You’re sure it can’t come,” she said.
“Ai-e, no. It stays in its place,” said the big woman. Waves with white tops came leaping over the blue. Pearl watched them break on a long piece of land covered with gardenpath shells. They drove round a corner.
There were some little houses down close to the sea, with wood fences round them and gardens inside. They comforted her. Pink and red and blue washing hung over the fences, and as they came near more people came out, and five yellow dogs with long thin tails. All the people were fat and laughing, with little naked babies holding on to them or rolling about in the gardens like puppies. Pearl was lifted down and taken into a tiny house with only one room and a verandah. There was a girl there with two pieces of black hair down to her feet. She was setting the dinner on the floor. “It is a funny place,” said Pearl, watching the pretty girl while the woman unbuttoned her little drawers for her. She was very hungry. She ate meat and vegetables and fruit and the woman gave her milk out of a green cup. And it was quite silent except for the sea outside and the laughs of the two women watching her.
“Haven’t you got any Houses of Boxes?” she said. “Don’t you all live in a row? Don’t the men go to offices? Aren’t there any nasty things?”
They took off her shoes and stockings, her pinafore and dress. She walked about in her petticoat and then she walked outside with the grass pushing between her toes. The two women came out with different sorts of baskets. They took her hands. Over a little paddock, through a fence, and then on warm sand with brown grass in it they went down to the sea. Pearl held back when the sand grew wet, but the women coaxed, “Nothing to hurt, very beautiful. You come.” They dug in the sand and found some shells which they threw into the baskets. The sand was wet as mud pies. Pearl forgot her fright and began digging too. She got hot and wet, and suddenly over her feet broke a little line of foam. “Oo, oo!” she shrieked, dabbling with her feet, “Lovely, lovely!” She paddled in the shallow water. It was warm. She made a cup of her hands and caught some of it. But it stopped being blue in her hands. She was so excited that she rushed over to her woman and flung her little thin arms round the woman’s neck, hugging her, kissing . . .
Suddenly the girl gave a frightful scream. The woman raised herself and Pearl slipped down on the sand and looked towards the land. Little men in blue coats — little blue men came running, running towards her with shouts and whistlings — a crowd of little blue men to carry her back to the House of Boxes.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58