The Black Notebook
The hotel was full of people for the long week-end. Mrs Boothby had opened an annexe of an extra dozen rooms. There were to be two big dances, one public and one private, and already there was an air of pleasant dislocation of ordinary life. When our party sat down to dinner very late, a waiter was decorating the corners of the dining-room with coloured paper and strings of light bulbs; and we were served with an especial ice pudding made for the following night. And there was an emissary from Mrs Boothby to ask if the ‘airforce boys’ would mind helping her decorate the big room tomorrow. The messenger was June Boothby, and it was clear she had come out of curiosity to see the boys in question, probably because her mother had talked of them. But it was equally clear she was not impressed. A good many Colonial girls took one look at the boys from England and dismissed them for ever as sissy and wet and soft. June was such a girl. That evening she stayed just long enough to deliver the message and to hear Paul’s over-polite delight in accepting ‘on behalf of the airforce’ her mother’s kind invitation. She went out again at once. Paul and Willi made a few jokes about the marriageable daughter, but it was in the spirit of their jest about ‘Mr and Mrs Boothby, the publican and his wife’. For the rest of that week-end, and the succeeding week-ends they ignored her. They apparently considered her so plain that they refrained from mentioning her out of a sense of pity, or perhaps even — though neither of these men showed much sign of this emotion generally — a sense of chivalry. She was a tall, big-bodied girl, with great red clumsy arms and legs. Her face was high-coloured, like her mother’s; she had the same colourless hair prinked around her full clumsy-featured face. She had not one feature or attribute with charm. But she did have a sulky bursting prowling sort of energy, because she was in that state so many young girls go through — a state of sexual obsession that can be like a sort of trance. When I was fifteen, still living in Baker Street with my father, I spent some months in that state, so that now I can’t walk through that area without remembering, half-amused, half-embarrassed, an emotional condition which was so strong it had the power to absorb into it pavements, houses, shop windows. What was interesting about June was this: surely nature should have arranged matters so that the men she met must be aware of what afflicted her. Not at all. That first evening Maryrose and I involuntarily exchanged glances and nearly laughed out aloud from recognition and amused pity. We did not, because we also understood that the so obvious fact was not obvious to the men and we wanted to protect her from their laughter. All the women in the place were aware of June. I remember sitting one morning on the verandah with Mrs Lattimore, the pretty red-haired woman who flirted with young Stanley Lett, and June came into sight prowling blindly under the gum-trees by the railway lines. It was like watching a sleep-walker. She would take half a dozen steps, staring across the valley at the piled blue mountains, lift her hands to her hair, so that her body, tightly outlined in bright red cotton showed every straining line and the sweat patches dark under the armpits — then drop her arms, her fists clenched at her sides. She would stand motionless, then walk on again, pause, seem to dream, kick at the cinders with the toe of a high white sandal, and so on, slowly, till she was out of sight beyond the sun-glittering gum-trees. Mrs Lattimore let out a deep rich sigh, laughed her weak indulgent laugh, and said: ‘My God, I wouldn’t be a girl again for a million pounds. My God, to go through all that again, not for a million million.’ And Maryrose and I agreed. Yet, although to us every appearance of this girl was so powerfully embarrassing, the men did not see it and we took care not to betray her. There is a female chivalry, woman for woman, as strong as any other kind of loyalty. Or perhaps it was we didn’t want brought home to us the deficiencies of imagination of our own men.