On the Beach, by Nevil Shute

A few delicious tidbits in here, to which we will add as the hours, days, weeks, months and years go by.

Re: On the Beach, by Nevil Shute

Postby admin » Fri Aug 18, 2017 2:13 am


In Mary Holmes’ garden the first narcissus bloomed on the first day of August, the day the radio announced, with studied objectivity, cases of radiation sickness in Adelaide and Sydney. The news did not trouble her particularly; all news was bad, like wage demands, strikes, or war, and the wise person paid no attention to it. What was important was that it was a bright, sunny day; her first narcissus were in bloom, and the daffodils behind them were already showing flower buds. “They’re going to be a picture,” she said happily to Peter. “There are so many of them. Do you think some of the bulbs can have sent up two shoots?”

“I shouldn’t think so,” he replied. “I don’t think they do that. They split in two and make another bulb or something.”

She nodded. “We’ll have to dig them up in the autumn, after they die down, and separate them. Then we’ll get a lot more and put them along here. They’re going to look marvellous in a year or two.” She paused in thought. “We’ll be able to pick some then, and have them in the house.”

One thing troubled her upon that perfect day, that Jennifer was cutting her first tooth, and was hot and fractious. Mary had a book called Baby’s First Year which told her that this was normal, and nothing to worry about, but she was troubled all the same. “I mean,” she said, “they don’t know everything, the people who write these books. And all babies aren’t the same, anyway. She oughtn’t to keep crying like this, ought she? Do you think we ought to get in Dr. Halloran?”

“I shouldn’t think so,” Peter said. “She’s chewing her rusk all right.”

“She’s so hot, the poor little lamb.” She picked up the baby from her cot and started patting it on the back across her shoulder; the baby had intended that, and stopped yelling. Peter felt that he could almost hear the silence. “I think she’s probably all right,” he said. “Just wants a bit of company.” He felt he couldn’t stand much more of it, after a restless night with the child crying all the time and Mary getting in and out of bed to soothe it. “Look, dear,” he said, “I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve got to go up to the Navy Department. I’ve got a date in the Third Naval Member’s office at eleven forty-five.”

“What about the doctor, though? Don’t you think he ought to see her?”

“I wouldn’t worry him. The book says she may be upset for a couple of days. Well, she’s been going on for thirty-six hours now.” By God, she has, he thought.

“It might be something different—not teeth at all. Cancer, or something. After all, she can’t tell us where the pain is. . . .”

“Leave it till I get back,” he said. “I should be back here around four o’clock, or five at the latest. Let’s see how she is then.”

“All right,” she said reluctantly.

He took the petrol cans and put them in the car, and drove out on the road, glad to be out of it. He had no appointment in the Navy Department that morning but there would be no harm in looking in on them if, indeed, there was anybody in the office. Scorpion was out of dry dock and back alongside the aircraft carrier waiting for orders that might never come; he could go and have a look at her and, as a minor side issue, fill up his petrol tank and cans.

On that fine morning there was no one in the Third Naval Member’s office save for one Wran writer, prim, and spectacled and conscientious. She said that she was expecting Commander Mason on board any minute now. Peter said he might look in again, and went down to his car, and drove to Williamstown. He parked beside the aircraft carrier and walked up the gangway with his cans in hand, accepting the salute of the officer of the day. “Morning,” he said. “Is Commander Towers about?”

“I think he’s down in Scorpion, sir.”

“And I want some juice.”

“Very good, sir. If you leave the cans here . . . Fill the tank as well?”

“If you would.” He went on through the cold, echoing, empty ship and down the gangplank to the submarine. Dwight Towers came up to the bridge deck as he stepped on board. Peter saluted him formally. “Morning, sir,” he said. “I came over to see what’s doing, and to get some juice.”

“Plenty of juice,” said the American. “Not much doing. I wouldn’t say there would be now, not ever again. You haven’t any news for me?”

Peter shook his head. “I looked in at the Navy Department just now. There didn’t seem to be anyone there, except one Wran.”

“I had better luck than you. I found a lieutenant there yesterday. . . . Kind of running down.”

“There’s not so long to run now, anyway.” They leaned on the bridge rail; he glanced at the captain. “You heard about Adelaide and Sydney?”

Dwight nodded. “Sure. First it was months, and then it got to be weeks, and now I’d say it’s getting down to days. How long are they figuring on now?”

“I haven’t heard. I wanted to get into touch with John Osborne today and get the latest gen.”

“You won’t find him in the office. He’ll be working on that car. Say, that was quite a race.”

Peter nodded. “Are you going down to see the next one—the Grand Prix itself? That’s the last race ever, as I understand it. It’s really going to be something.”

“Well, I don’t know. Moira didn’t like the last one so much. I think women look at things differently. Like boxing or wrestling.” He paused. “You driving back to Melbourne now?”

“I was—unless you want me for anything, sir?”

“I don’t want you. There’s nothing to do here. I’ll thumb a ride to town with you, if I may. My Leading Seaman Edgar hasn’t shown up with the car today; I suppose he’s running down, too. If you can wait ten minutes while I change this uniform I’ll be with you.”

Forty minutes later they were talking to John Osborne in the garage in the mews. The Ferrari hung with its nose lifted high on chain blocks to the roof, its front end and steering dismantled. John was in an overall working on it with one mechanic; he had got it all so spotlessly clean that his hands were hardly dirty. “It’s very lucky we got those parts off the Maserati,” he said seriously. “One of these wishbones was bent all to hell. But the forgings are the same; we’ve had to bore out a bit and fit new bushes. I wouldn’t have liked to race her if we’d had to heat the old one and bend it straight. I mean, you never know what’s going to happen after a repair like that.”

“I’d say you don’t know what’s going to happen anyway in this kind of racing,” said Dwight. “When is the Grand Prix to be?”

“I’m having a bit of a row with them over that,” said the scientist. “They’ve got it down for Saturday fortnight, the 17th, but I think that’s too late. I think we ought to run it on Saturday week, the 10th.”

“Getting kind of close, is it?”

“Well, I think so. After all, they’ve got definite cases in Canberra now.”

“I hadn’t heard of that. The radio said Adelaide and Sydney.”

“The radio’s always about three days late. They don’t want to create alarm and despondency until they’ve got to. But there’s a suspect case in Albury today.”

“In Albury? That’s only about two hundred miles north.”

“I know. I think Saturday fortnight is going to be too late.”

Peter asked, “How long do you think we’ve got then, John?”

The scientist glanced at him. “I’ve got it now. You’ve got it, we’ve all got it. This door, this spanner—everything’s getting touched with radioactive dust. The air we breathe, the water that we drink, the lettuce in the salad, even the bacon and eggs. It’s getting down now to the tolerance of the individual. Some people with less tolerance than others could quite easily be showing symptoms in a fortnight’s time. Maybe sooner.” He paused. “I think it’s crazy to put off an important race like the Grand Prix till Saturday fortnight. We’re having a meeting of the Committee this afternoon and I’m going to tell them so. We can’t have a decent race if half the drivers have got diarrhoea and vomiting. It just means that the Grand Prix might be won by the chap with the best tolerance to radioactivity. Well, that’s not what we’re racing for!”

“I suppose that’s so,” said Dwight. He left them in the garage, for he had a date to lunch with Moira Davidson. John Osborne suggested lunch at the Pastoral Club, and presently he wiped his hands on a clean piece of rag, took off his overall, locked the garage, and they walked up through the city to the club.

As they went, Peter asked, “How’s your uncle getting on?”

“He’s made a big hole in the port, him and his cobbers,” the scientist said. “He’s not quite so good, of course. We’ll probably see him at lunch; he comes in most days now. Of course, it’s made a difference to him now that he can come in in his car.”

“Where does he get his petrol from?”

“God knows. The army, probably. Where does anybody get his petrol from these days?” He paused. “I think he’ll stay the course, but I wouldn’t bank on it. The port’ll probably give him longer than most of us.”

“The port?”

The other nodded. “Alcohol, taken internally, seems to increase the tolerance to radioactivity. Didn’t you know that?”

“You mean, if you get pickled you last longer?”

“A few days. With Uncle Douglas it’s a toss-up which’ll kill him first. Last week I thought the port was winning, but when I saw him yesterday he looked pretty good.”

They parked the car and went into the club. They found Sir Douglas Froude sitting in the garden room, for the wind was cold. A glass of sherry was on the table by him and he was talking to two old friends. He made an effort to get to his feet when he saw them, but abandoned it at John’s request. “Don’t get about so well as I used to, once,” he said. “Come, pull a chair up, and have some of this sherry. We’re down to about fifty bottles now of the Amontillado. Push that bell.”

John Osborne did so, and they drew up chairs. “How are you feeling now, sir?”

“So-so, so-so. That doctor was probably right. He said that if I went back to my old habits I shouldn’t last longer than a few months, and I shan’t. But nor will he, and nor will you.” He chuckled. “I hear you won that motor race that you were going in for.”

“I didn’t win it—I was second. It means I’ve got a place in the Grand Prix.”

“Well, don’t go and kill yourself. Although, I’m sure, it doesn’t seem to matter very much if you do. Tell me, somebody was saying that they’ve got it in Cape Town. Do you think that’s true?”

His nephew nodded. “That’s true enough. They’ve had it for some days. We’re still in radio communication, though.”

“So they’ve got it before us?”

“That’s true.”

“That means that all of Africa is out, or will be out, before we get it here?”

John Osborne grinned. “It’s going to be a pretty near thing. It looks as though all Africa might be gone in a week or so.” He paused. “It seems to go quite quickly at the end, so far as we can ascertain. It’s a bit difficult, because when more than half the people in a place are dead the communications usually go out, and then you don’t quite know what’s happening. All services are usually stopped by then, and food supplies. The last half seem to go quite quickly. . . . But as I say, we don’t really know what does happen, in the end.”

“Well, I think that’s a good thing,” the general said robustly. “We’ll find out soon enough.” He paused. “So all of Africa is out. I’ve had some good times there, back in the days before the First War, when I was a subaltern. But I never did like that apartheid. . . . Does that mean that we’re going to be the last?”

“Not quite,” his nephew said. “We’re going to be the last major city. They’ve got cases now in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and they’ve got a case or two in Auckland. After we’re gone Tasmania may last another fortnight, and the South Island of New Zealand. The last of all to die will be the Indians in Tierra del Fuego.”

“The Antarctic?”

The scientist shook his head. “There’s nobody there now, so far as we know.” He smiled. “Of course, that’s not the end of life upon the earth. You mustn’t think that. There’ll be life here in Melbourne long after we’ve gone.”

They stared at him. “What life?” Peter asked.

He grinned broadly. “The rabbit. That’s the most resistant animal we know about.”

The general pushed himself upright in his chair, his face suffused with anger. “You mean to say the rabbit’s going to live longer than we do?”

“That’s right. About a year longer. It’s got about twice the resistance that we’ve got. There’ll be rabbits running about Australia and eating all the feed next year.”

“You’re telling me the bloody rabbit’s going to put it across us, after all? They’ll be alive and kicking when we’re all dead?”

John Osborne nodded. “Dogs will outlive us. Mice will last a lot longer, but not so long as rabbits. So far as we can see, the rabbit has them all licked—he’ll be the last.” He paused. “They’ll all go in the end, of course. There’ll be nothing left alive here by the end of the next year.”

The general sank back in his chair. “The rabbit! After all we’ve done, and all we’ve spent in fighting him—to know he’s going to win out in the end!” He turned to Peter. “Just press that bell beside you. I’m going to have a brandy and soda before going in to lunch. We’d all better have a brandy and soda after that.”

In the restaurant Moira Davidson and Dwight settled at a table in a corner, and ordered lunch. Then she said, “What’s troubling you, Dwight?”

He took up a fork and played with it. “Not very much.”

“Tell me.”

He raised his head. “I’ve got another ship in my command—U.S.S. Swordfish at Montevideo. It’s getting hot around those parts right now. I radioed the captain three days ago asking him if he thought it practical to leave and sail his vessel over here.”

“What did he say?”

“He said it wasn’t. Shore associations, he called them. What he meant was girls, same as Scorpion. Said he’d try and come if there was a compelling reason but he’d be leaving half his crew behind.” He raised his head. “There’d be no point in coming that way,” he told her. “He wouldn’t be operational.”

“Did you tell him to stay there?”

He hesitated. “Yes,” he said at last. “I ordered him to take Swordfish out beyond the twelve-mile limit and sink her on the high seas, in deep water.” He stared at the prongs of the fork. “I dunno if I did the right thing or not,” he said. “I thought that was what the Navy Department would want me to do—not to leave a ship like that, full of classified gear, kicking around in another country. Even if there wasn’t anybody there.” He glanced at her. “So now the U.S. Navy’s been reduced again,” he said. “From two ships down to one.”

They sat in silence for a minute. “Is that what you’re going to do with Scorpion?” she asked at last.

“I think so. I’d have liked to take her back to the United States, but it wouldn’t be practical. Too many shore associations, like he said.”

Their lunch came. “Dwight,” she said when the waiter had departed. “I had an idea.”

“What’s that, honey?”

“They’re opening the trout fishing early this year, on Saturday week. I was wondering if you’d like to take me up into the mountains for the week-end.” She smiled faintly. “For the fishing, Dwight—fishing to fish. Not for anything else. It’s lovely up by Jamieson.”

He hesitated for a moment. “That’s the day that John Osborne thinks they’ll be running the Grand Prix.”

She nodded. “So I thought. Would you rather see that?”

He shook his head. “Would you?”

“No. I don’t want to see any more people get killed. We’re going to see enough of that in a week or two.”

“I feel that way about it, too. I don’t want to see that race, and maybe see John get killed. I’d rather go fishing.” He glanced at her and met her eyes. “There’s just one thing, honey. I wouldn’t want to go if it was going to mean that you’d get hurt.”

“I shan’t get hurt,” she said. “Not in the way you mean.”

He stared across the crowded restaurant. “I’m going home quite soon,” he said. “I’ve been away a long time, but it’s nearly over now. You know the way it is. I’ve got a wife at home I love, and I’ve played straight with her the two years that I’ve been away. I wouldn’t want to spoil that now, these few last days.”

“I know,” she said. “I’ve known that all the time.” She was silent for a minute, and then she said, “You’ve been very good for me, Dwight. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t come along. I suppose half a loaf is better than no bread, when you’re starving.”

He wrinkled his brows. “I didn’t get that, honey.”

“It doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t want to start a smutty love affair when I’m dying in a week or ten days’ time. I’ve got some standards, too—now, anyway.”

He smiled at her. “We could try out Junior’s rod. . . .”

“That’s what I thought you’d want to do. I’ve got a little fly rod I could bring, but I’m no good.”

“Got any flies and leaders?”

“We call them casts. I’m not quite sure. I’ll have to look around and see what I can find at home.”

“We’d go by car, would we? How far is it?”

“I think we’d want petrol for about five hundred miles. But you don’t have to worry about that. I asked Daddy if I might borrow the Customline. He’s got it out and running, and he’s got nearly a hundred gallons of petrol tucked away in the hay shed behind the hay.”

He smiled again. “You think of everything. Say, where would we stay?”

“I think at the hotel,” she said. “It’s only a small country place, but I think it’s the best bet. I could borrow a cottage, but it wouldn’t have been slept in for two years, and we’d spend all our time in housekeeping. I’ll ring up and make a booking at the hotel. For two rooms,” she said.

“Okay. I’ll have to chase that Leading Seaman Edgar and see if I can use my car without taking him along. I’m not just sure if I’m allowed to drive myself.”

“That’s not terribly important now, is it? I mean, you could just take it and drive it.”

He shook his head. “I wouldn’t want to do that.”

“But, Dwight, why not? I mean, it doesn’t matter—we can go in the Customline. But if that car’s been put at your disposal, you can use it, surely. We’re all going to be dead in a fortnight’s time. Then nobody will be using it.”

“I know. . . .” he said. “It’s just that I’d like to do things right, up till the end. If there’s an order I’ll obey it. That’s the way I was trained, honey, and I’m not changing now. If it’s against the rules for an officer to take a service car and drive it up into the mountains for a week-end with a girl, then I’ll not do it. There’ll be no alcoholic liquor on board Scorpion, not even in the last five minutes.” He smiled. “That’s the way it is, so let me buy you another drink.”

“I can see that it will have to be the Customline. You’re a very difficult man—I’m glad I’m not a sailor serving under you. No, I won’t have a drink, thanks, Dwight. I’ve got my first test this afternoon.”

“Your first test?”

She nodded. “I’ve got to try and take dictation at fifty words a minute. You’ve got to be able to do that and type it out without more than three mistakes in shorthand and three in typing. It’s very difficult.”

“I’d say it might be. You’re getting to be quite a shorthand typist.”

She smiled faintly. “Not at fifty words a minute. You have to be able to do a hundred and twenty if you’re ever going to be any good.” She raised her head. “I’d like to come and see you in America one day,” she said. “I want to meet Sharon—if she’d want to meet me.”

“She’ll want to meet you,” he said. “I’d say she’s kind of grateful to you now, already.”

She smiled faintly. “I don’t know. Women are funny about men. . . . If I came to Mystic, would there be a shorthand typing school where I could finish off my course?”

He thought for a minute. “Not in Mystic itself,” he said. “There’s plenty of good business colleges in New London. That’s only about fifteen miles away.”

“I’ll just come for an afternoon,” she said thoughtfully. “I want to see Helen jumping round upon that Pogo stick. But after that, I think I’d better come back here.”

“Sharon would be very disappointed if you did that, honey. She’d want you to stay.”

“That’s what you think. I shall want a bit of convincing on that point.”

He said, “I think things may be kind of different by that time.”

She nodded slowly. “Possibly. I’d like to think they would be. Anyway, we’ll find out pretty soon.” She glanced at her wrist watch. “I must go, Dwight, or I’ll be late for my test.” She gathered up her gloves and her bag. “Look, I’ll tell Daddy that we’d like to take the Customline and about thirty gallons of petrol.”

He hesitated. “I’ll find out about my car. I don’t like taking your father’s car away for all that time, with all that gas.”

“He won’t be using it,” she said. “He’s had it on the road for a fortnight, but I think he’s only used it twice. There’s so much that he wants to see done on the farm while there’s still time.”

“What’s he working on now?”

“The fence along the wood—the one in the forty acre. He’s digging postholes to put up a new one. It’s about twenty chains long. That’s going to mean digging nearly a hundred holes.”

“There’s not so much to do at Williamstown. I could come out and lend a hand, if he’d like that.”

She nodded. “I’ll tell him. Give you a ring tonight, at about eight o’clock?”

“Fine,” he said. He escorted her to the door. “Good luck with the test.”

He had no engagement for that afternoon. He stood in the street outside the restaurant after she had left him, completely at a loose end. Inactivity was unusual for him, and irksome. At Williamstown there was absolutely nothing for him to do; the aircraft carrier was dead and his ship all but dead. Although he had received no orders, he knew that now she would never cruise again; for one thing, with South America and South Africa out, there was now nowhere much for them to cruise to, unless it were New Zealand. He had given half of his ship’s company leave, each half alternating a week at a time; of the other half he kept only about ten men on duty for maintenance and cleaning in the submarine, permitting the rest daily leave on shore. No signals now arrived for him to deal with; once a week he signed a few stores requisitions as a matter of form, though the stores they needed were supplied from dockyard sources with a disregard of paper work. He would not admit it, but he knew that his ship’s working life was over, as his own was. He had nothing to replace it.

He thought of going to the Pastoral Club, and abandoned the idea; there would be no occupation for him there. He turned and walked towards the motor district of the town where he would find John Osborne working on his car; there might be work there of the sort that interested him. He must be back at Williamstown in time to receive Moira’s call at about eight o’clock; that was his next appointment. He would go out next day and help her father with that fence, and he looked forward to the labour and the occupation.

On his way downtown he stopped at a sports shop and asked for flies and casts. “I’m sorry, sir,” the man said. “Not a cast in the place, and not a fly. I’ve got a few hooks left, if you can tie your own. Sold clean out of everything the last few days, on account of the season opening, and there won’t be any more coming in now, either. Well, as I said to the wife, it’s kind of satisfactory. Get the stock down to a minimum before the end. It’s how the accountants would like to see it, though I don’t suppose they’ll take much interest in it now. It’s a queer turnout.”

He walked on through the city. In the motor district there were still cars in the windows, still motor mowers, but the windows were dirty and the stores closed, the stock inside covered in dust and dirt. The streets were dirty now and littered with paper and spoilt vegetables; it was evidently some days since the street cleaners had operated. The trams still ran, but the whole city was becoming foul and beginning to smell; it reminded the American of an oriental city in the making. It was raining a little and the skies were grey; in one or two places the street drains were choked, and great pools stood across the road.

He came to the mews and to the open garage door. John Osborne was working with two others, and Peter Holmes was there, his uniform coat off, washing strange, nameless parts of the Ferrari in a bath of kerosene, more valuable at that time than mercury. There was an atmosphere of cheerful activity in the garage that warmed his heart.

“I thought we might see you,” said the scientist. “Come for a job?”

“Sure,” said Dwight. “This city gives me a pain. You got anything I can do?”

“Yes. Help Bill Adams fit new tires on every wheel you can find.” He indicated a stack of brand-new racing tires; there seemed to be wire wheels everywhere.

Dwight took his coat off thankfully. “You’ve got a lot of wheels.”

“Eleven, I think. We got the ones off the Maserati—they’re the same as ours. I want a new tire on every wheel we’ve got. Bill works for Goodyear and he knows the way they go, but he needs somebody to help.”

The American, rolling up his sleeves, turned to Peter. “He got you working, too?”

The naval officer nodded. “I’ll have to go before very long. Jennifer’s teething, and been crying for two bloody days. I told Mary I was sorry I’d got to go on board today, but I’d be back by five.”

Dwight smiled. “Left her to hold the baby.”

Peter nodded. “I got her a garden rake and a bottle of dillwater. But I must be back by five.”

He left half an hour later, and got into his little car, and drove off down the road to Falmouth. He got back to his flat on time, and found Mary in the lounge, the house miraculously quiet. “How’s Jennifer?” he asked.

She put her finger to her lips. “She’s sleeping,” she whispered. “She went off after dinner, and she hasn’t woken up since.”

He went towards the bedroom, and she followed him. “Don’t wake her,” she whispered.

“Not on your life,” he whispered back. He stood looking down at the child, sleeping quietly. “I don’t think she’s got cancer,” he remarked.

They went back into the lounge, closing the door quietly behind them, and he gave her his presents. “I’ve got dillwater,” she said, “—masses of it, and anyway she doesn’t have it now. You’re about three months out of date. The rake’s lovely. It’s just what we want for getting all the leaves and twigs up off the lawn. I was trying to pick them up by hand yesterday, but it breaks your back.”

They got short drinks, and presently she said, “Peter, now that we’ve got petrol, couldn’t we have a motor mower?”

“They cost quite a bit,” he objected, almost automatically.

“That doesn’t matter so much now, does it? And with the summer coming on, it would be a help. I know we’ve not got very much lawn to mow, but it’s an awful chore with the hand mower, and you may be away at sea again. If we had a very little motor mower that I could start myself. Or an electric one. Doris Haynes has an electric one, and it’s no trouble to start at all.”

“She’s cut its cord in two at least three times, and each time she does that she darn nearly electrocutes herself.”

“You don’t have to do that if you’re careful. I think it would be a lovely thing to have.”

She lived in the dream world of unreality, or else she would not admit reality; he did not know. In any case, he loved her as she was. It might never be used, but it would give her pleasure to have it. “I’ll see if I can find one next time I go up to town,” he said. “I know there are plenty of motor mowers, but I’m not just sure about an electric one.” He thought for a moment. “I’m afraid the electric ones may all be gone. People would have bought them when there wasn’t any petrol.”

She said, “A little motor one would do, Peter. I mean, you could show me how to start it.”

He nodded. “They’re not much trouble, really.”

“Another thing we ought to have,” she said, “is a garden seat. You know—one that you can leave outside all winter, and sit on whenever it’s a nice fine day. I was thinking, how nice it would be if we had a garden seat in that sheltered corner just by the arbutus. I think we’d use it an awful lot next summer. Probably use it all the year round, too.”

He nodded. “Not a bad idea.” It would never be used next summer, but let that go. Transport would be a difficulty; the only way he could transport a garden seat with the Morris Minor would be by putting it on the roof, and that might scratch the enamel unless he padded it very well. “We’ll get the motor mower first, and then see what the bank looks like.”

He drove her up to Melbourne the next day to look for a motor mower; they went with Jennifer in her carrying basket on the back seat. It was some weeks since she had been in the city, and its aspect startled and distressed her. “Peter,” she said, “what’s the matter with everything? It’s all so dirty, and it smells horrid.”

“I suppose the street cleaners have stopped working,” he observed.

“But why should they do that? Why aren’t they working? Is there a strike or something?”

“Everything’s just slowing down,” he said. “After all, I’m not working.”

“That’s different,” she said. “You’re in the navy.” He laughed. “No, what I mean is, you go to sea for months and months, and then you go on leave. Street cleaners don’t do that. They go on all the time. At least, they ought to.”

He could not elucidate it any further for her, and they drove on to the big hardware store. It had only a few customers, and very few assistants. They left the baby in the car and went through to the gardening department, and searched some time for an assistant. “Motor mowers?” he said. “You’ll find a few in the next hall, through that archway. Look them over and see if what you want is there.”

They did so, and picked a little twelve-inch mower. Peter looked at the price tag, picked up the mower, and went to find the assistant. “I’ll take this one,” he said.

“Okay,” said the man. “Good little mower, that.” He grinned sardonically. “Last you a lifetime.”

“Forty-seven pounds ten,” said Peter. “Can I pay by cheque?”

“Pay by orange peel for all I care,” the man said. “We’re closing down tonight.”

The naval officer went over to a table and wrote his cheque; Mary was left talking to the salesman. “Why are you closing down?” she asked. “Aren’t people buying things?”

He laughed shortly. “Oh—they come in and they buy. Not much to sell them now. But I’m not going on right up till the end, same with all the staff. We had a meeting yesterday, and then we told the management. After all, there’s only about a fortnight left to go. They’re closing down tonight.”

Peter came back and handed his cheque to the salesman. “Okeydoke,” the man said. “I don’t know if they’ll ever pay it in without a staff up in the office. Maybe I’d better give you a receipt in case they get on to your tail next year. . . .” He scribbled a receipt and turned to another customer.

Mary shivered. “Peter, let’s get out of this and go home. It’s horrid here, and everything smells.”

“Don’t you want to stay up here for lunch?” He had thought she would enjoy the little outing.

She shook her head. “I’d rather go home now, and have lunch there.”

They drove in silence out of the city and down to the bright little seaside town that was their home. Back in their apartment on the hill she regained a little of her poise; here were the familiar things she was accustomed to, the cleanness that was her pride, the carefully tended little garden, the clean wide view out over the bay. Here was security.

After lunch, smoking before they did the washing up, she said, “I don’t think I want to go to Melbourne again, Peter.”

He smiled. “Getting a bit piggy, isn’t it?”

“It’s horrible,” she said vehemently. “Everything shut up, and dirty, and stinking. It’s as if the end of the world had come already.”

“It’s pretty close, you know,” he said.

She was silent for a moment. “I know; that’s what you’ve been telling me all along.” She raised her eyes to his. “How far off is it, Peter?”

“About a fortnight,” he said. “It doesn’t happen with a click, you know. People start getting ill, but not all on the same day, of course. Some people are more resistant than others.”

“But everybody gets it, don’t they?” she asked in a low tone. “I mean, in the end.”

He nodded. “Everybody gets it, in the end.”

“How much difference is there in people? I mean, when they get it?”

He shook his head. “I don’t really know. I think everybody would have got it in three weeks.”

“Three weeks from now, or three weeks after the first case?”

“Three weeks after the first case, I mean,” he said. “But I don’t really know.” He paused. “It’s possible to get it slightly and get over it,” he said. “But then you get it again ten days or a fortnight later.”

She said, “There’s no guarantee, then, that you and I would get it at the same time? Or Jennifer? We might any of us get it, any time?”

He nodded. “That’s the way it is. We’ve just got to take it as it comes. After all, it’s what we’ve always had to face, only we’ve never faced it, because we’re young. Jennifer might always have died first, of the three of us, or I might have died before you. There’s nothing much that’s new about it.”

“I suppose not,” she said. “I did hope it all might happen on one day.”

He took her hand. “It may quite well do so,” he said. “But—we’d be lucky.” He kissed her. “Let’s do the washing up.” His eye fell on the lawn mower. “We can mow the lawn this afternoon.”

“The grass is all wet,” she said sadly. “It’ll make it rusty.”

“Then we’ll dry it in front of the fire in the lounge,” he promised her. “I won’t let it get rusty.”

Dwight Towers spent the week-end with the Davidsons at Harkaway, working from dawn till dusk each day on the construction of the fences. The hard physical work was a relief from all his tensions, but he found his host to be a worried man. Someone had told him about the resistance of the rabbit to radioactive infection. The rabbit did not worry him a great deal, for Harkaway had always been remarkably free from rabbits, but the relative immunity of the furred animals raised questions in regard to his beef cattle, and to these he had found no answer.

He unburdened himself one evening to the American. “I never thought of it,” he said. “I mean, I assumed the Aberdeen Angus, they’d die at the same time as us. But now it looks as though they’ll last a good while longer. How much longer they’ll last—that I can’t find out. Apparently there’s been no research done on it. But as it is, of course, I’m feeding out both hay and silage, and up here we go on feeding out until the end of September in an average year—about half a bale of hay a beast each day. I find you have to do that if you’re going to keep them prime. Well, I can’t see how to do it if there’s going to be no one here. It really is a problem.”

“What would happen if you opened the hay barn to them, and let them take it as they want it?”

“I thought of that, but they’d never get the bales undone. If they did, they’d trample most of it underfoot and spoil it.” He paused. “I’ve been puzzling to think out if there isn’t some way we could do it with a time clock and an electric fence. . . . But any way you look at it, it means putting out a month’s supply of hay into the open paddock, in the rain. I don’t know what to do. . . .”

He got up. “Let me get you a whisky.”

“Thank you—a small one.” The American reverted to the problem of the hay. “It certainly is difficult. You can’t even write to the papers and find out what anybody else is doing.”

He stayed with the Davidsons until the Tuesday morning, and then went back to Williamstown. At the dockyard his command was beginning to disintegrate, in spite of everything that the executive and the chief of the boat had been able to do. Two men had not returned from leave and one was reported to have been killed in a street brawl at Geelong, but there was no confirmation. There were eleven cases of men drunk on return from leave waiting for his jurisdiction and he found these very difficult to deal with. Restriction of leave when there was no work to do aboard and only about a fortnight left to go did not seem to be the answer. He left the culprits confined in the brig of the aircraft carrier while they sobered up and while he thought about it; then he had them lined up before him on the quarter deck.

“You men can’t have it both ways,” he told them. “We’ve none of us got long to go now, you or me. As of today, you’re members of the ship’s company of U.S.S. Scorpion, and that’s the last ship of the U.S. Navy in commission. You can stay as part of the ship’s company, or you can get a dishonorable discharge.”

He paused. “Any man coming aboard drunk or late from leave, from this time on, will get discharged next day. And when I say discharged, I mean dishonorable discharge, and I mean it quick. I’ll strip the uniform off you right there and then and put you outside the dockyard gates as a civilian in your shorts, and you can freeze and rot in Williamstown for all the U.S. Navy cares. Hear that, and think it over. Dismissed.”

He got one case next day, and turned the man outside the dockyard gates in shirt and underpants to fend for himself. He had no more trouble of that sort.

He left the dockyard early on the Friday morning in the Chevrolet driven by his leading seaman, and went to the garage in the mews off Elizabeth Street in the city. He found John Osborne working on the Ferrari, as he had expected; the car stood roadworthy and gleaming, to all appearances ready to race there and then. Dwight said, “Say, I just called in as I was passing by to say I’m sorry that I won’t be there to see you win tomorrow. I’ve got another date up in the mountains, going fishing.”

The scientist nodded. “Moira told me. Catch a lot of fish. I don’t think there’ll be many people there this time except competitors and doctors.”

“I’d have thought there would be, for the Grand Prix.”

“It may be the last week-end in full health for a lot of people. They’ve got other things they want to do.”

“Peter Holmes—he’ll be there?”

John Osborne shook his head. “He’s going to spend it gardening.” He hesitated. “I oughtn’t to be going really.”

“You don’t have a garden.”

The scientist smiled wryly. “No, but I’ve got an old mother, and she’s got a Pekinese. She’s just woken up to the fact that little Ming’s going to outlive her by several months, and now she’s worried stiff what’s going to happen to him. . . .” He paused. “It’s the hell of a time, this. I’ll be glad when it’s all over.”

“End of the month, still?”

“Sooner than that for most of us.” He said something in a low tone, and added, “Keep that under your hat. It’s going to be tomorrow afternoon for me.”

“I hope that’s not true,” said the American. “I kind of want to see you get that cup.”

The scientist glanced lovingly at the car. “She’s fast enough,” he said. “She’d win it if she had a decent driver. But it’s me that’s the weak link.”

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.”

“Okay. Bring me back a fish.”

The American left the mews and went back to his car, wondering if he would see the scientist again. He said to his leading seaman, “Now drive out to Mr. Davidson’s farm at Harkaway, near Berwick. Where you’ve taken me once before.”

He sat in the back seat of the car fingering the little rod as they drove out into the suburbs, looking at the streets and houses that they passed in the grey light of the winter day. Very soon, perhaps in a month’s time, there would be no one here, no living creatures but the cats and dogs that had been granted a short reprieve. Soon they too would be gone; summers and winters would pass by and these houses and these streets would know them. Presently, as time passed, the radioactivity would pass also; with a cobalt half-life of about five years these streets and houses would be habitable again in twenty years at the latest, and probably sooner than that. The human race was to be wiped out and the world made clean again for wiser occupants without undue delay. Well, probably that made sense.

He got to Harkaway in the middle of the morning; the Ford was in the yard, the boot full of petrol cans. Moira was ready for him, a little suitcase stowed on the back seat with a good deal of fishing gear. “I thought we’d get away before lunch and have sandwiches on the road,” she said. “The days are pretty short.”

“Suits me,” he said. “You got sandwiches?”

She nodded. “And beer.”

“Say, you think of everything.” He turned to the grazier. “I feel kind of mean taking your car like this,” he said. “I could take the Chev, if you’d rather.”

Mr. Davidson shook his head. “We went into Melbourne yesterday. I don’t think we’ll be going again. It’s too depressing.”

The American nodded. “Getting kind of dirty.”

“Yes. No, you take the Ford. There’s a lot of petrol might as well be used up, and I don’t suppose that I’ll be needing it again. There’s too much to do here.”

Dwight transferred his gear into the Ford and sent his leading seaman back to the dockyard with the Chev. “I don’t suppose he’ll go there,” he said reflectively as the car moved off. “Still, we go through the motions.”

They got into the Ford. Moira said, “You drive.”

“No,” he replied. “You’d better drive. I don’t know the way, and maybe I’d go hitting something on the wrong side of the road.”

“It’s two years since I drove,” she said. “But it’s your neck.” They got in and she found first gear after a little exploration, and they moved off down the drive.

It pleased her to be driving again, pleased her very much indeed. The acceleration of the car gave her a sense of freedom, of escape from the restraints of her daily life. They went by side roads through the Dandenong mountains spattered with guest houses and residences and stopped for lunch not far from Lilydale beside a rippling stream. The day had cleared up and it was now sunny, with white clouds against a bright blue sky.

They eyed the stream professionally as they ate their sandwiches. “It’s muddy kind of water,” said Dwight. “I suppose that’s because it’s early in the year.”

“I think so,” the girl said. “Daddy said it would be too muddy for fly fishing. He said you might do all right with a spinner, but he advised me to kick about upon the bank until I found a worm and dab about with that.”

The American laughed. “I’d say there’s some sense in that, if the aim is to catch fish. I’ll stick to a spinner for a time, at any rate, because I want to see that this rod handles right.”

“I’d like to catch one fish,” the girl said a little wistfully. “Even if it’s such a dud one that we put it back. I think I’ll try with worm unless the water’s a lot clearer up at Jamieson.”

“It might be clearer high up in the mountains, with the melting snow.”

She turned to him. “Do fish live longer than we’re going to? Like dogs?”

He shook his head. “I wouldn’t know, honey.”

They drove on to Warburton and took the long, winding road up through the forests to the heights. They emerged a couple of hours later on the high ground at Matlock; here there was snow upon the road and on the wooded mountains all around; the world looked cold and bleak. They dropped down into a valley to the little town of Woods Point and then up over another watershed. From there a twenty mile run through the undulating, pleasant valley of the Goulburn brought them to the Jamieson hotel just before dusk.

The American found the hotel to be a straggling collection of somewhat tumble-down single-storey wooden buildings, some of which dated from the earliest settlement of the state. It was well that they had booked rooms, for the place was crowded with fishermen. More cars were parked outside it than ever in the palmiest days of peacetime; inside, the bar was doing a roaring trade. They found the landlady with some difficulty, her face aglow with excitement. As she showed them their rooms, small and inconvenient and badly furnished, she said, “Isn’t this lovely, having all you fishermen here again? You can’t think what it’s been like the last two years, with practically no one coming here except on pack horse trips. But this is just like old times. Have you got a towel of your own? Oh well, I’ll see if I can find one for you. But we’re so full.” She dashed off in a flurry of pleasure.

The American looked after her. “Well,” he said, “she’s having a good time, anyway. Come on, honey, and I’ll buy you a drink.”

They went to the crowded barroom, with a boarded, sagging ceiling, a huge fire of logs in the grate, a number of chromium-plated chairs and tables, and a seething mass of people.

“What’ll I get you, honey?”

“Brandy,” she shouted above the din. “There’s only one thing to do here tonight, Dwight.”

He grinned, and forced his way through the crowd towards the bar. He came back in a few minutes, struggling, with a brandy and a whisky. They looked around for chairs, and found two at a table where two earnest men in shirt sleeves were sorting tackle. They looked up and nodded as Dwight and Moira joined them. “Fish for breakfast,” said one.

“Getting up early?” asked Dwight.

The other glanced at him. “Going to bed late. The season opens at midnight.”

He was interested. “You’re going out then?”

“If it’s not actually snowing. Best time to fish.” He held up a huge white fly tied on a small hook. “That’s what I use. That’s what gets them. Put a shot or two on it, and sink it down, and then cast well across. Never fails.”

“It does with me,” his companion said. “I like a little frog. You get alongside a pool you know about two in the morning with a little frog and put the hook just through the skin on his back and cast him across and let him swim about. . . . That’s what I do. You going out tonight?”

Dwight glanced at the girl, and smiled. “I guess not,” he said. “We just fish around in daylight—we’re not in your class. We don’t catch much.”

The other nodded. “I used to be like that. Look at the birds and the river and the sun upon the ripples, and not care much what you caught. I do that sometimes. But then I got to this night fishing, and that’s really something.” He glanced at the American. “There’s a ruddy great monster of a fish in a pool down just below the bend that I’ve been trying to get for the last two years. I had him on a frog the year before last, and he took out most of my line and then broke me. And then I had him on again last year, on a sort of doodlebug in the late evening, and he broke me again—brand-new, o.x. nylon. He’s twelve pounds if he’s an ounce. I’m going to get him this time if I’ve got to stay up all of every night until the end.”

The American leaned back to talk to Moira. “You want to go out at two in the morning?”

She laughed. “I’ll want to go to bed. You go if you’d like to.”

He shook his head. “I’m not that kind of fisherman.”

“Just the drinking kind,” she said. “I’ll toss you who goes and battles for the next drink.”

“I’ll get you another,” he said.

She shook her head. “Just stay where you are and learn something about fishing. I’ll get you one.”

She struggled through the crowd to the bar carrying the glasses, and came back presently to the table by the fireside. Dwight got up to meet her, and as he did so his sports jacket fell open. She handed him the glass and said accusingly, “You’ve got a button off your pull-over!”

He glanced down. “I know. It came off on the way up here.”

“Have you got the button?”

He nodded. “I found it on the floor of the car.”

“You’d better give it to me with the pull-over tonight, and I’ll sew it on for you.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.

“Of course it matters.” She smiled softly. “I can’t send you back to Sharon looking like that.”

“She wouldn’t mind, honey. . . .”

“No, but I should. Give it me tonight, and I’ll give it back to you in the morning.”

He gave it to her at the door of her bedroom at about eleven o’clock at night. They had spent most of the evening smoking and drinking with the crowd, keenly anticipating the next day’s sport, discussing whether to fish the lake or the streams. They had decided to try it on the Jamieson River, having no boat. The girl took the garment from him and said, “Thanks for bringing me up here, Dwight. It’s been a lovely evening, and it’s going to be a lovely day tomorrow.”

He stood uncertain. “You really mean that, honey? You’re not going to be hurt?”

She laughed. “I’m not going to be hurt, Dwight. I know you’re a married man. Go to bed. I’ll have this for you in the morning.”

“Okay.” He turned and listened to the noise and snatches of songs still coming from the bar. “They’re having themselves a real good time,” he said. “I still can’t realize it’s never going to happen again, not after this week-end.”

“It may do, somehow,” she said. “On another plane, or something. Anyway, let’s have fun and catch fish tomorrow. They say it’s going to be a fine day.”

He grinned. “Think it ever rains, on that other plane?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “We’ll find out soon enough.”

“Got to get some water in the rivers, somehow,” he said thoughtfully. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be much fishing. . . .” He turned away. “Good night, Moira. Let’s have a swell time tomorrow, anyway.”

She closed her door, and stood for a few moments holding the pull-over to her. Dwight was as he was, a married man whose heart was in Connecticut with his wife and children; it would never be with her. If she had had more time things might have been different, but it would have taken many years. Five years, at least, she thought, until the memories of Sharon and of Junior and of Helen had begun to fade; then he would have turned to her, and she could have given him another family, and made him happy again. Five years were not granted to her; it would be five days, more likely. A tear trickled down beside her nose and she wiped it away irritably; self-pity was a stupid thing, or was it the brandy? The light from the one fifteen-watt bulb high in the ceiling of her dark little bedroom was too dim for sewing buttons on. She threw off her clothes, put on her pyjamas, and went to bed, the pull-over on the pillow by her head. In the end she slept.

They went out next day after breakfast to fish the Jamieson not far from the hotel. The river was high and the water clouded; she dabbled her flies amateurishly in the quick water and did no good, but Dwight caught a two-pounder with the spinning tackle in the middle of the morning and she helped him to land it with the net. She wanted him to go on and catch another, but having proved the rod and tackle he was now more interested in helping her to catch something. About noon one of the fishermen that they had sat with at the bar came walking down the bank, studying the water and not fishing. He stopped to speak to them.

“Nice fish,” he said, looking at Dwight’s catch. “Get him on the fly?”

The American shook his head. “On the spinner. We’re trying with the fly now. Did you do any good last night?”

“I got five,” the man said. “Biggest about six pounds. I got sleepy about three in the morning and turned it in. Only just got out of bed. You won’t do much good with fly, not in this water.” He produced a plastic box and poked about in it with his forefinger. “Look, try this.”

He gave them a tiny fly spoon, a little bit of plated metal about the size of a sixpence ornamented with one hook. “Try that in the pool where the quick water runs out. They should come for that, on a day like this.”

They thanked him, and Dwight tied it on the cast for her. At first she could not get it out; it felt like a ton of lead on the end of her rod and fell in the water at her feet. Presently she got the knack of it, and managed to put it into the fast water at the head of the pool. On the fifth or sixth successful cast there was a sudden pluck at the line, the rod bent, and the reel sang as the line ran out. She gasped, “I believe I’ve got one, Dwight.”

“Sure, you’ve got one,” he said. “Keep the rod upright, honey. Move down a bit this way.” The fish broke surface in a leap. “Nice fish,” he said. “Keep a tight line, but let him run if he really wants to go. Take it easy, and he’s all yours.”

Five minutes later she got the exhausted fish in to the bank at her feet, and he netted it for her. He killed it with a quick blow on a stone, and they admired her catch. “Pound and a half,” he said. “Maybe a little bigger.” He extracted the little spoon carefully from its mouth. “Now catch another one.”

“It’s not so big as yours,” she said, but she was bursting with pride.

“The next one will be. Have another go at it.” But it was close to lunchtime, and she decided to wait till the afternoon. They walked back to the hotel proudly carrying their spoils and had a glass of beer before lunch, talking over their catch with the other anglers.

They went out again in the middle of the afternoon to the same stretch of river and again she caught a fish, a two-pounder this time, while Dwight caught two smaller fish, one of which he put back. Towards evening they rested before going back to the hotel, pleasantly tired and content with the day’s work, the fish laid out beside them. They sat against a boulder by the river, enjoying the last of the sunlight before it sank behind the hill, smoking cigarettes. It was growing chilly, but they were reluctant to leave the murmur of the river.

A sudden thought struck her. “Dwight,” she said. “That motor race must be over by this time.”

He stared at her. “Holy smoke! I meant to listen to it on the radio. I forgot all about it.”

“So did I,” she said. There was a pause, and then she said, “I wish we’d listened. I’m feeling a bit selfish.”

“We couldn’t have done anything, honey.”

“I know. But—I don’t know. I do hope John’s all right.”

“The news comes on at seven,” he said. “We could listen then.”

“I’d like to know,” she said. She looked around her at the calm, rippling water, the long shadows, the golden evening light. “This is such a lovely place,” she said. “Can you believe—really believe—that we shan’t see it again?”

“I’m going home,” he said quietly. “This is a grand country, and I’ve liked it here. But it’s not my country, and now I’m going back to my own place, to my own folks. I like it in Australia well enough, but all the same I’m glad to be going home at last, home to Connecticut.” He turned to her. “I shan’t see this again, because I’m going home.”

“Will you tell Sharon about me?” she asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Maybe she knows already.”

She stared down at the pebbles at her feet. “What will you tell her?”

“Lots of things,” he said quietly. “I’ll tell her that you turned what might have been a bad time for me into a good time. I’ll tell her that you did that although you knew, right from the start, that there was nothing in it for you. I’ll tell her it’s because of you I’ve come back to her like I used to be, and not a drunken bum. I’ll tell her that you’ve made it easy for me to stay faithful to her, and what it’s cost you.”

She got up from the stone. “Let’s go back to the hotel,” she said. “You’ll be lucky if she believes a quarter of all that.”

He got up with her. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I think she’ll believe it all, because it’s true.”

They walked back to the hotel carrying their fish. When they had cleaned up they met again in the hotel bar for a drink before tea; they ate quickly in order to be back at the radio before the news. It came on presently, mostly concerned with sport; as they sat tense the announcer said,

The Australian Grand Prix was run today at Tooradin and was won by Mr. John Osborne, driving a Ferrari. The second place . . .

The girl exclaimed, “Oh Dwight, he did it!” They sat forward to listen.

The race was marred by the large number of accidents and casualties. Of the eighteen starters only three finished the race of eighty laps, six of the drivers being killed outright in accidents and many more removed to hospital with more or less severe injuries. The winner, Mr. John Osborne, drove cautiously for the first half of the race and at the fortieth lap was three laps behind the leading car, driven by Mr. Sam Bailey. Shortly afterwards Mr. Bailey crashed at the corner known as The Slide, and from that point onwards the Ferrari put on speed. At the sixtieth lap the Ferrari was in the lead, the field by that time being reduced to five cars, and thereafter Mr. Osborne was never seriously challenged. On the sixty-fifth lap he put up a record for course, lapping at 97.83 miles an hour, a remarkable achievement for this circuit. Thereafter Mr. Osborne reduced speed in response to signals from his pit, and finished the race at an average speed of 89.61 miles an hour. Mr. Osborne is an official of the C.S.I.R.O.; he has no connection with the motor industry and races as an amateur.

Later they stood on the verandah of the hotel for a few minutes before bed, looking out at the black line of the hills, the starry night. “I’m glad John got what he wanted,” the girl said. “I mean, he wanted it so much. It must kind of round things off for him.”

The American beside her nodded. “I’d say things are rounding off for all of us right now.”

“I know. There’s not much time. Dwight, I think I’d like to go home tomorrow. We’ve had a lovely day up here and caught some fish. But there’s so much to do, and now so little time to do it in.”

“Sure, honey,” he said. “I was thinking that myself. You glad we came, though?”

She nodded. “I’ve been very happy, Dwight, all day. I don’t know why—not just catching fish. I feel like John must feel—as if I’ve won a victory over something. But I don’t know what.”

He smiled. “Don’t try and analyze it,” he said. “Just take it, and be thankful. I’ve been happy, too. But I’d agree with you, we should get home tomorrow. Things will be happening down there.”

“Bad things?” she asked.

He nodded in the darkness by her side. “I didn’t want to spoil the trip for you,” he said. “But John Osborne told me yesterday before we came away they got several cases of this radiation sickness in Melbourne, as of Thursday night. I’d say there’d be a good many more by now.”
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Re: On the Beach, by Nevil Shute

Postby admin » Fri Aug 18, 2017 2:15 am


On the Tuesday morning Peter Holmes went to Melbourne in his little car. Dwight Towers had telephoned to him to meet him at ten forty-five in the anteroom to the office of the First Naval Member. The radio that morning announced for the first time the incidence of radiation sickness in the city, and Mary Holmes had been concerned about him going there. “Do be careful, Peter,” she said. “I mean, about all this infection. Do you think you ought to go?”

He could not bring himself to tell her again that the infection was there around them, in their pleasant little flat; either she did not or she would not understand. “I’ll have to go,” he said. “I won’t stay longer than I’ve absolutely got to.”

“Don’t stay up to lunch,” she said. “I’m sure it’s healthier down here.”

“I’ll come straight home,” he said.

A thought struck her. “I know,” she said. “Take those formalin lozenges with you that we got for my cough, and suck one now and then. They’re awfully good for all kinds of infection. They’re so antiseptic.”

It would set her mind at ease if he did so. “That’s not a bad idea,” he said.

He drove up to the city deep in thought. It was no longer a matter of days now; it was coming down to hours. He did not know what this conference with the First Naval Member was to be about, but it was very evident that it would be one of the last naval duties of his career. When he drove back again that afternoon his service life would probably be over, as his physical life soon would be.

He parked his car and went into the Navy Department. There was practically no one in the building; he walked up to the anteroom and there he found Dwight Towers in uniform, and alone. His captain said cheerfully, “Hi, fella.”

Peter said, “Good morning, sir.” He glanced around; the secretary’s desk was locked, the room empty. “Hasn’t Lieutenant Commander Torrens shown up?”

“Not that I know of. I’d say he’s taking the day off.”

The door into the admiral’s office opened, and Sir David Hartman stood there. The smiling, rubicund face was more serious and drawn than Peter had remembered. He said, “Come in, gentlemen. My secretary isn’t here today.”

They went in, and were given seats before the desk. The American said, “I don’t know if what I have to say concerns Lieutenant Commander Holmes or not. It may involve a few liaison duties with the dockyard. Would you prefer he wait outside, sir?”

“I shouldn’t think so,” said the admiral. “If it will shorten our business, let him stay. What is it you want, Commander?”

Dwight hesitated for a moment, choosing his words. “It seems that I’m the senior executive officer of the U.S. Navy now,” he said. “I never thought I’d rise so high as that, but that’s the way it is. You’ll excuse me if I don’t put this in the right form or language, sir. But I have to tell you that I’m taking my ship out of your command.”

The admiral nodded slowly. “Very good, Commander. Do you wish to leave Australian territorial waters, or to stay here as our guest?”

“I’ll be taking my ship outside territorial waters,” the commander said. “I can’t just say when I’ll be leaving, but probably before the week-end.”

The admiral nodded. He turned to Peter. “Give any necessary instructions in regard to victualling and towage to the dockyard,” he said. “Commander Towers is to be given every facility.”

“Very good, sir.”

The American said, “I don’t just know what to suggest about payments, sir. You must forgive me, but I have no training in these matters.”

The admiral smiled thinly. “I don’t know that it would do us much good if you had, Commander. I think we can leave those to the usual routine. All countersigned indents and requisitions are costed here and are presented to the Naval Attaché at your embassy in Canberra, and forwarded by him to Washington for eventual settlement. I don’t think you need worry over that side of it.”

Dwight said, “I can just cast off and go?”

“That’s right. Do you expect to be returning to Australian waters?”

The American shook his head. “No, sir. I’m taking my ship out in Bass Strait to sink her.”

Peter had expected that, but the imminence and the practical negotiation of the matter came with a shock; somehow this was the sort of thing that did not happen. He wanted for a moment to ask if Dwight required a tug to go out with the submarine to bring back the crew, and then abandoned the question. If the Americans wanted a tug to give them a day or two more life they would ask for it, but he did not think they would. Better the sea than death by sickness and diarrhoea homeless in a strange land.

The admiral said, “I should probably do the same, in your shoes. . . . Well, it only remains to thank you for your cooperation, Commander. And to wish you luck. If there’s anything you need before you go don’t hesitate to ask for it—or just take it.” A sudden spasm of pain twisted his face and he gripped a pencil on the desk before him. Then he relaxed a little, and got up from the desk. “Excuse me,” he said. “I’ll have to leave you for a minute.”

He left them hurriedly, and the door closed behind him. The captain and the liaison officer had stood up at his sudden departure; they remained standing, and glanced at each other. “This is it,” said the American.

Peter said in a low tone, “Do you suppose that’s what’s happened to the secretary?”

“I’d think so.”

They stood in silence for a minute or two, staring out of the window. “Victualling,” Peter said at last. “There’s nothing much in Scorpion. Is the exec getting out a list of what you’ll need, sir?”

Dwight shook his head. “We shan’t need anything,” he said. “I’m only taking her down the bay and just outside the territorial limit.”

The liaison officer asked the question that he had wanted to ask before. “Shall I lay on a tug to sail with you and bring the crew back?”

Dwight said, “That won’t be necessary.”

They stood in silence for another ten minutes. Finally the admiral reappeared, grey faced. “Very good of you to wait,” he said. “I’ve been a bit unwell. . . .” He did not resume his seat, but remained standing by the desk. “This is the end of a long association, Captain,” he said. “We British have always enjoyed working with Americans, especially upon the sea. We’ve had cause to be grateful to you very many times, and in return I think we’ve taught you something out of our experience. This is the end of it.” He stood in thought for a minute, and then he held out his hand, smiling. “All I can do now is to say good-bye.”

Dwight took his hand. “It certainly has been good, working under you, sir,” he said. “I’m speaking for the whole ship’s company when I say that, as well as for myself.”

They left the office and walked down through the desolate, empty building to the courtyard. Peter said, “Well, what happens now, sir? Would you like me to come down to the dockyard?”

The captain shook his head. “I’d say that you can consider yourself to be relieved of duty,” he said. “I won’t need you any more down there.”

“If there’s anything that I can do, I’ll come very gladly.”

“No. If I should find I need anything from you, I’ll ring your home. But that’s where your place is now, fella.”

This, then, was the end of their fellowship. “When will you be sailing?” Peter asked.

“I wouldn’t know exactly,” the American said. “I’ve got seven cases in the crew, as of this morning. I guess we’ll stick around a day or two, and sail maybe on Saturday.”

“Are many going with you?”

“Ten. Eleven, with myself.”

Peter glanced at him. “Are you all right, so far?”

Dwight smiled. “I thought I was, but now I don’t just know. I won’t be taking any lunch today.” He paused. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m all right. So is Mary—I think.”

Dwight turned towards the cars. “You get back to her, right now. There’s nothing now for you to stay here for.”

“Will I see you again, sir?”

“I don’t think you will,” said the captain. “I’m going home now, home to Mystic in Connecticut, and glad to go.”

There was nothing more for them to say or do. They shook hands, got into their cars, and drove off on their separate ways.

In the old-fashioned, two-storey brick house in Malvern, John Osborne stood by his mother’s bed. He was not unwell, but the old lady had fallen sick upon the Sunday morning, the day after he had won the Grand Prix. He had managed to get a doctor for her on Monday but there was nothing he could do, and he had not come again. The daily maid had not turned up, and the scientist was now doing everything for his sick mother.

She opened her eyes for the first time in a quarter of an hour. “John,” she said. “This is what they said would happen, isn’t it?”

“I think so, Mum,” he said gently. “It’s going to happen to me, too.”

“Did Dr. Hamilton say that was what it was? I can’t remember.”

“That’s what he told me, Mum. I don’t think he’ll be coming here again. He said he was getting it himself.”

There was a long silence. “How long will it take me to die, John?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It might be a week.”

“How absurd,” said the old lady. “Much too long.”

She closed her eyes again. He took a basin to the bathroom, washed it out, and brought it back into the bedroom. She opened her eyes again. “Where is Ming?” she asked.

“I put him out in the garden,” he said. “He seemed to want to go.”

“I am so terribly sorry about him,” she muttered. “He’ll be so dreadfully lonely, without any of us here.”

“He’ll be all right, Mum,” her son said, though without much confidence. “There’ll be all the other dogs for him to play with.”

She did not pursue the subject, but she said, “I’ll be quite all right now, dear. You go on and do whatever you have to do.”

He hesitated. “I think I ought to look in at the office,” he said. “I’ll be back before lunch. What would you like for lunch?”

She closed her eyes again. “Is there any milk?”

“There’s a pint in the frig,” he said. “I’ll see if I can get some more. It’s not too easy, though. There wasn’t any yesterday.”

“Ming ought to have a little,” she said. “It’s so good for him. There should be three tins of rabbit in the larder. Open one of those for his dinner, and put the rest in the frig. He’s so fond of rabbit. Don’t bother about lunch for me till you come back. If I’m feeling like it I might have a cup of cornflour.”

“Sure you’ll be all right if I go out?” he asked.

“Quite sure,” she said. She held out her arms. “Give me a kiss before you go.”

He kissed the limp old cheeks, and she lay back in bed, smiling at him.

He left the house and went down to the office. There was nobody there, but on his desk there was the daily report of radioactive infection. Attached to it was a note from his secretary. She said that she was feeling very unwell, and probably would not be coming to the office again. She thanked him for his kindness to her, congratulated him upon the motor race, and said how much she had enjoyed working for him.

He laid the note aside and took up the report. It said that in Melbourne about fifty per cent of the population appeared to be affected. Seven cases were reported from Hobart in Tasmania, and three from Christchurch in New Zealand. The report, probably the last that he would see, was much shorter than usual.

He walked through the empty offices, picking up a paper here and there and glancing at them. This phase of his life was coming to an end, with all the others. He did not stay very long, for the thought of his mother was heavy on him. He went out and made his way towards his home by one of the occasional, crowded trams still running in the streets. It had a driver, but no conductor; the days of paying fares were over. He spoke to the driver. The man said, “I’ll go on driving this here bloody tram till I get sick, cock. Then I’ll drive it to the Kew depot and go home. That’s where I live, see? I been driving trams for thirty-seven years, rain or shine, and I’m not stopping now.”

In Malvern he got off the tram and commenced his search for milk. He found it to be hopeless; what there was had been reserved for babies by the dairy. He went home empty-handed to his mother.

He entered the house and released the Pekinese from the garden, thinking that his mother would like to see him. He went upstairs to her bedroom, the dog hopping up the stairs before him.

In the bedroom he found his mother lying on her back with her eyes closed, the bed very neat and tidy. He moved a little closer and touched her hand, but she was dead. On the table by her side was a glass of water, a pencilled note, and one of the little red cartons, open, with the empty vial beside it. He had not known that she had that.

He picked up the note. It read,

My dear son,

It’s quite absurd that I should spoil the last days of your life by hanging on to mine, since it is such a burden to me now. Don’t bother about my funeral. Just close the door and leave me in my own bed, in my own room, with my own things all round me. I shall be quite all right.

Do whatever you think best for little Ming. I am so very, very sorry for him, but I can do nothing.

I am so very glad you won your race.

My very dearest love.
A few tears trickled down his cheeks, but only a few. Mum had always been right, all his life, and now she was right again. He left the room and went down to the drawing room, thinking deeply. He was not yet ill himself, but now it could only be a matter of hours. The dog followed him; he sat down and took it on his lap, caressing the silky ears.

Presently he got up, put the little dog in the garden, and went out to the chemist at the corner. There was a girl behind the counter still, surprisingly; she gave him one of the red cartons. “Everybody’s after these,” she said smiling. “We’re doing quite a lot of business in them.”

He smiled back at her. “I like mine chocolate-coated.”

“So do I,” she said. “But I don’t think they make them like that. I’m going to take mine with an ice-cream soda.”

He smiled again, and left her at the counter. He went back to the house, released the Pekinese from the garden, and began to prepare a dinner for him in the kitchen. He opened one of the tins of rabbit and warmed it a little in the oven, and mixed with it four capsules of Nembutal. Then he put it down before the little dog, who attacked it greedily, and made his basket comfortable for him before the stove.

He went out to the telephone in the hall and rang up the club, and booked a bedroom for a week. Then he went to his own room and began to pack a suitcase.

Half an hour later he came down to the kitchen; the Pekinese was in his basket, very drowsy. The scientist read the directions on the carton carefully and gave him the injection; he hardly felt the prick.

When he was satisfied that the little dog was dead he carried him upstairs in the basket and laid it on the floor beside his mother’s bed.

Then he left the house.

Tuesday night was a disturbed night for the Holmes. The baby began crying at about two in the morning, and it cried almost incessantly till dawn. There was little sleep for the young father or mother. At about seven o’clock it vomited.

Outside it was raining and cold. They faced each other in the grey light, weary and unwell themselves. Mary said, “Peter—you don’t think this is it, do you?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “But I should think it might be. Everybody seems to be getting it.”

She passed a hand across her brow, wearily. “I thought we’d be all right, out here in the country.”

He did not know what he could say to comfort her, and so he said, “If I put the kettle on, would you like a cup of tea?”

She crossed to the cot again, and looked down at the baby; she was quiet for the moment. He said again, “What about a cup of tea?”

It would be good for him, she thought; he had been up for most of the night. She forced a smile. “That’d be lovely.”

He went through to the kitchen to put the kettle on. She was feeling terrible, and now she wanted to be sick. It was being up all night, of course, and the worry over Jennifer. Peter was busy in the kitchen; she could go quietly to the bathroom without him knowing. She was often sick, but this time he might think it was something else, and get worried.

In the kitchen there was a stale smell, or seemed to be. Peter Holmes filled the kettle at the tap, and plugged it in; he switched on and saw with some relief the indicator light come on that showed the current was flowing. One of these days the juice would fail, and then they would be in real trouble.

The kitchen was intolerably stuffy; he threw open the window. He was hot, and then suddenly cold again, and then he knew that he was going to be sick. He went quietly to the bathroom, but the door was locked; Mary must be in there. No point in alarming her; he went out of the back door in the rain and vomited in a secluded corner behind the garage.

He stayed there for some time. When he came back he was white and shaken, but feeling more normal. The kettle was boiling and he made the tea, and put two cups on a tray, and took it to their bedroom. Mary was there, bending over the cot. He said, “I’ve got the tea.”

She did not turn, afraid her face might betray her. She said, “Oh, thanks. Pour it out; I’ll be there in a minute.” She did not feel that she could touch a cup of tea, but it would do him good.

He poured out the two cups and sat on the edge of the bed, sipping his; the hot liquid seemed to calm his stomach. He said presently, “Come on and have your tea, dear. It’s getting cold.”

She came a little reluctantly; perhaps she could manage it. She glanced at him, and his dressing gown was soaking wet with rain. She exclaimed, “Peter, you’re all wet! Have you been outside?”

He glanced at his sleeve; he had forgotten that. “I had to go outside,” he said.

“Whatever for?”

He could not keep up a dissimulation. “I’ve just been sick,” he said. “I don’t suppose it’s anything.”

“Oh, Peter! So have I.”

They stared at each other in silence for a minute. Then she said dully, “It must be those meat pies we had for supper. Did you notice anything about them?”

He shook his head. “Tasted all right to me. Besides, Jennifer didn’t have any meat pie.”

She said, “Peter. Do you think this is it?”

He took her hand. “It’s what everybody else is getting,” he said. “We wouldn’t be immune.”

“No,” she said thoughtfully. “No. I suppose we wouldn’t.” She raised her eyes to his. “This is the end of it, is it? I mean, we just go on now getting sicker till we die?”

“I think that’s the form,” he said. He smiled at her. “I’ve never done it before, but they say that’s what happens.”

She left him and went through to the lounge; he hesitated for a moment and then followed her. He found her standing by the French window looking out into the garden that she loved so much, now grey and wintry and windswept. “I’m so sorry that we never got that garden seat,” she said irrelevantly. “It would have been lovely just there, just beside that bit of wall.”

“I could have a stab at getting one today,” he said.

She turned to him. “Not if you’re ill.”

“I’ll see how I’m feeling later on,” he said. “Better to be doing something than sit still and think how miserable you are.”

She smiled. “I’m feeling better now, I think. Could you eat any breakfast?”

“Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know that I’m feeling quite so good as all that. What have you got?”

“We’ve got three pints of milk,” she said. “Can we get any more?”

“I think so. I could take the car for it.”

“What about some cornflakes, then? It says they’re full of glucose on the packet. That’s good for when you’re being sick, isn’t it?”

He nodded. “I think I’ll have a shower,” he said. “I might feel better after that.”

He did so; when he came out to their bedroom she was in the kitchen busy with the breakfast. To his amazement, he heard her singing, singing a cheerful little song that inquired who’d been polishing the sun. He stepped into the kitchen. “You sound cheerful,” he remarked.

She came to him. “It’s such a relief,” she said, and now he saw she had been crying a little as she sang. He wiped her tears away, puzzled, as he held her in his arms.

“I’ve been so terribly worried,” she sobbed. “But now it’s going to be all right.”

Nothing was further from right, he thought, but he did not say so. “What’s been worrying you?” he asked gently.

“People get this thing at different times,” she said. “That’s what they say. Some people can get it as much as a fortnight later than others. I might have got it first and had to leave you, or Jennifer, or you might have got it and left us alone. It’s been such a nightmare. . . .”

She raised her eyes to his, smiling through her tears. “But now we’ve got it all together, on the same day. Aren’t we lucky?”

On the Friday Peter Holmes drove up to Melbourne in his little car, ostensibly to try and find a garden seat. He went quickly because he could not be away from home too long. He wanted to find John Osborne and to find him without delay; he tried the garage in the mews first, but that was locked; then he tried the C.S.I.R.O. offices. Finally he found him in his bedroom at the Pastoral Club; he was looking weak and ill.

Peter said, “John, I’m sorry to worry you. How are you feeling?”

“I’ve got it,” said the scientist. “I’ve had it two days. Haven’t you?”

“That’s what I wanted to see you about,” Peter said. “Our doctor’s dead, I think—at any rate, he isn’t functioning. Look, John, Mary and I both started giving at both ends on Tuesday. She’s pretty bad. But on Thursday, yesterday, I began picking up. I didn’t tell her, but I’m feeling as fit as a flea now, and bloody hungry. I stopped at a café on the way up and had breakfast—bacon and fried eggs and all the trimmings, and I’m still hungry. I believe I’m getting well. Look—can that happen?”

The scientist shook his head. “Not permanently. You can recover for a bit, but then you get it again.”

“How long is a bit?”

“You might get ten days. Then you’ll get it again. I don’t think there’s a second recovery. Tell me, is Mary very bad?”

“She’s not too good. I’ll have to get back to her pretty soon.”

“She’s in bed, is she?”

Peter shook his head. “She came down to Falmouth with me this morning to buy moth balls.”

“To buy what?”

“Moth balls. Napthalene—you know.” He hesitated. “It’s what she wanted,” he said. “I left her putting all our clothes away to keep the moths out of them. She can do that in between the spasms, and she wants to do it.” He reverted to the subject he had come for. “Look, John. I take it that I get a week or ten days’ health, but there’s no chance for me at all after that?”

“Not a hope, old boy,” the scientist said. “Nobody survives this thing. It makes a clean sweep.”

“Well, that’s nice to know,” said Peter. “No good hanging on to any illusions. Tell me, is there anything that I can do for you? I’ll have to beat it back to Mary in a minute.”

The scientist shook his head. “I’m just about through. I’ve got one or two things that I’ve got to do today, but then I think I’ll finish it.”

Peter knew he had responsibilities at home. “How’s your mother?”

“She’s dead,” the scientist said briefly. “I’m living here now.”

Peter nodded, but the thought of Mary filled his mind. “I’ll have to go,” he said. “Good luck, old man.”

The scientist smiled weakly. “Be seeing you,” he replied.

When the naval officer had gone he got up from the bed and went along the passage. He returned half an hour later a good deal weaker, his lip curling with disgust at his vile body. Whatever he had to do must be done today; tomorrow he would be incapable.

He dressed carefully, and went downstairs. He looked into the garden room; there was a fire burning in the grate and his uncle sitting there alone, a glass of sherry by his side. He glanced up, and said, “Good morning, John. How did you sleep?”

The scientist said briefly, “Very badly. I’m getting pretty sick.”

The old man raised his flushed, rubicund face in concern. “My dear boy, I’m sorry to hear that. Everybody seem to be sick now. Do you know, I had to go down to the kitchen and cook my breakfast for myself? Imagine that, in a club like this!”

He had been living there for three days, since the death of the sister who had kept house for him at Macedon. “However, Collins the hall porter has come in now, and he’s going to cook us some lunch. You’ll be lunching here today?”

John Osborne knew that he would not be lunching anywhere. “I’m sorry I can’t today, Uncle. I’ve got to go out.”

“Oh, what a pity. I was hoping that you’d be here to help us out with the port. We’re on the last bin now—I think about fifty bottles. It should just see us through.”

“How are you feeling yourself, Uncle?”

“Never better, my boy, never better. I felt a little unsteady after dinner last night, but really, I think that was the Burgundy. I don’t think Burgundy mixes very well with other wines. In France, in the old days, if you drank Burgundy you drank it from a pint pot or the French equivalent, and you drank nothing else all evening. But I came in here and had a quiet brandy and soda with a little ice in it, and by the time I went upstairs I was quite myself again. No, I had a very good night.”

The scientist wondered how long the immunity from radioactive disease conferred by alcohol would last. So far as he was aware no research had yet been done upon that subject; here was an opportunity, but there was now nobody to do it. “I’m sorry I can’t stay to lunch,” he said. “But I’ll see you tonight, perhaps.”

“I shall be here, my boy, I shall be here. Tom Fotherington was in last night for dinner, and he said that he’d be coming in this morning, but he hasn’t shown up. I hope he isn’t ill.”

John Osborne left the club and walked down the tree-lined street in a dream. The Ferrari was urgently in need of his attention and he must go there; after that he could relax. He passed the open door of a chemist’s shop and hesitated for a moment; then he went in. The shop was unattended and deserted. In the middle of the floor was an open packing case full of the little red cartons, and a heap of these had been piled untidily upon the counter between the cough medicines and the lipsticks. He picked up one and put it in his pocket, and went on his way.

When he pushed back the sliding doors of the mews garage the Ferrari stood facing him in the middle of the floor, just as he had left it, ready for instant use. It had come through the Grand Prix unscratched, in bandbox condition. It was a glorious possession to him still, the more so since the race. He was now feeling too ill to drive it and he might never drive it again, but he felt that he would never be too ill to touch it and to handle it and work on it. He hung his jacket on a nail, and started.

First of all, the wheels must be jacked up and bricks arranged under the wishbones to bring the tires clear of the floor. The effort of manoeuvring the heavy jack and working it and carrying the bricks upset him again. There was no toilet in the garage but there was a dirty yard behind, littered with the black, oily junk of ancient and forgotten motorcars. He retired there and presently came back to work, weaker than ever now, more resolute to finish the job that day.

He finished jacking up the wheels before the next attack struck him. He opened a cock to drain the water from the cooling system, and then he had to go out to the yard again. Never mind, the work was easy now. He detached the terminals from the battery and greased the connections. Then he took out each of the six sparking plugs and filled the cyclinders with oil, and screwed the plugs back finger tight.

He rested then against the car; she would be all right now. The spasm shook him, and again he had to go out to the yard. When he came back evening was drawing near and the light was fading. There was no more to be done to preserve the car he loved so well, but he stayed by it, reluctant to leave it and afraid that another spasm might strike him before he reached the club.

For the last time he would sit in the driving seat and handle the controls. His crash helmet and goggles were in the seat; he put the helmet on and snugged it down upon his head, and hung the goggles round his neck beneath his chin. Then he climbed into the seat and settled down behind the wheel.

It was comfortable there, far more so than the club would be. The wheel beneath his hands was comforting, the three small dials grouped around the huge rev counter were familiar friends. This car had won for him the race that was the climax of his life. Why trouble to go further?

He took the red carton from his pocket, took the tablets from the vial, and threw the carton on the ground. No point in going on; this was the way he’d like to have it.

He took the tablets in his mouth, and swallowed them with an effort.

Peter Holmes left the club and drove down to the hardware store in Elizabeth Street where he had bought the motor mower. It was untenanted and empty of people, but somebody had broken in a door and it had been partially looted in that anyone who wanted anything had just walked in to take it. It was dim inside, for all the electricity had been turned off at the main. The garden department was on the second floor; he climbed the stairs and found the garden seats he had remembered. He selected a fairly light one with a brightly coloured detachable cushion that he thought would please Mary and would also serve to pad the roof of his car. With great effort he dragged the seat down two flights of stairs to the pavement outside the shop, and went back for the cushion and some rope. He found a hank of clothesline on a counter. Outside he heaved the seat up on the roof of the Morris Minor and lashed it in place with many ties of rope attached to all parts of the car. Then he set off for home.

He was still ravenously hungry, and feeling very well. He had not told Mary anything of his recovery, and he did not intend to do so now; it would only upset her, confident as she now was that they were all going together. He stopped on the way home at the same café that he had breakfasted at, kept by a beery couple who appeared to be enjoying remarkably good health. They were serving hot roast beef for lunch; he had two platefuls of that and followed it up with a considerable portion of hot jam roly-poly. Then as an afterthought he got them to make him an enormous parcel of beef sandwiches; he could leave those in the boot of the car where Mary would not know about them, so that he could go out in the evening and have a quiet little meal unknown to her.

He got back to his little flat in the early afternoon; he left the garden seat on top of the car and went into the house. He found Mary lying on the bed, half dressed, with an eiderdown over her; the house seemed cold and damp. He sat down on the bed beside her. “How are you feeling now?” he asked.

“Awful,” she said. “Peter, I’m so worried about Jennifer. I can’t get her to take anything at all, and she’s messing all the time.” She added some details.

He crossed the room and looked at the baby in the cot. It looked thin and weak, as Mary did herself. It seemed to him that both were very ill.

She asked, “Peter—how are you feeling yourself?”

“Not too good,” he said. “I was sick twice on the way up and once on the way down. As for the other end, I’ve just been running all the time.”

She laid her hand upon his arm. “You oughtn’t to have gone. . . .”

He smiled down at her. “I got you a garden seat, anyway.”

Her face lightened a little. “You did? Where is it?”

“On the car,” he said. “You lie down and keep warm. I’m going to light the fire and make the house cosy. After that I’ll get the seat down off the car and you can see it.”

“I can’t lie down,” she said wearily. “Jennifer needs changing.”

“I’ll see to that, first of all,” he said. He led her gently to the bed. “Lie down and keep warm.”

An hour later he had a blazing fire in their sitting room, and the garden seat was set up by the wall where she wanted it to be. She came to look at it from the French window, with the brightly coloured cushion on the seat. “It’s lovely,” she said. “It’s exactly what we needed for that corner. It’s going to be awfully nice to sit there, on a summer evening. . . .” The winter afternoon was drawing in, and a fine rain was falling. “Peter, now that I’ve seen it, would you bring the cushion in and put it in the verandah? Or, better, bring it in here till it’s dry. I do want to keep it nice for the summer.”

He did so, and they brought the baby’s cot into the warmer room. She said, “Peter, do you want anything to eat? There’s plenty of milk, if you could take that.”

He shook his head. “I couldn’t eat a thing,” he said. “How about you?”

She shook her head.

“If I mixed you a hot brandy and lemon?” he suggested. “Could you manage that?”

She thought for a moment. “I could try.” She wrapped her dressing gown around her. “I’m so cold. . . .”

The fire was roaring in the grate. “I’ll go out and get some more wood,” he said. “Then I’ll get you a hot drink.” He went out to the woodpile in the gathering darkness, and took the opportunity to open the boot of the car and eat three beef sandwiches. He came back presently to the living room with a basket of wood, and found her standing by the cot. “You’ve been so long,” she said. “Whatever were you doing?”

“I had a bit of trouble,” he told her. “Must be the meat pies again.”

Her face softened. “Poor old Peter. We’re all of us in trouble. . . .” She stooped over the cot, and stroked the baby’s forehead; she lay inert now, too weak apparently to cry. “Peter, I believe she’s dying. . . .”

He put his arm around her shoulder. “So am I,” he said quietly, “and so are you. We’ve none of us got very long to go. I’ve got the kettle here. Let’s have that drink.”

He led her from the cot to the warmth of the huge fire that he had made. She sat down on the floor before it and he gave her the hot drink of brandy and water with a little lemon squeezed in it. She sat sipping it and staring into the fire, and it made her feel a little better. He mixed one for himself, and they sat in silence for a few minutes.

Presently she said, “Peter, why did all this happen to us? Was it because Russia and China started fighting each other?”

He nodded. “That’s about the size of it,” he said. “But there was more to it than that. America and England and Russia started bombing for destruction first. The whole thing started with Albania.”

“But we didn’t have anything to do with it at all, did we—here in Australia?”

“We gave England moral support,” he told her. “I don’t think we had time to give her any other kind. The whole thing was over in a month.”

“Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?”

“I don’t know. . . . Some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop,” he said. “I mean, if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there’s not much that you or I can do about it. The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness.”

“But how could you have done that, Peter? I mean, they’d all left school.”

“Newspapers,” he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”

She did not fully comprehend his reasoning. “I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,” she said. “It’s been much nicer without them.”

A spasm shook her, and he helped her to the bathroom. While she was in there he came back to the sitting room and stood looking at his baby. It was in a bad way, and there was nothing he could do to help it; he doubted now if it would live through the night. Mary was in a bad way, too, though not quite so bad as that. The only one of them who was healthy was himself, and that he must not show.

The thought of living on after Mary appalled him. He could not stay in the flat; in the few days that would be left to him he would have nowhere to go, nothing to do. The thought crossed his mind that if Scorpion were still in Williamstown he might go with Dwight Towers and have it at sea, the sea that had been his life’s work. But why do that? He didn’t want the extra time that some strange quirk of his metabolism had given to him. He wanted to stay with his family.

She called him from the bathroom, and he went to help her. He brought her back to the great fire that he had made; she was cold and trembling. He gave her another hot brandy and water, and covered her with the eiderdown around her shoulders. She sat holding the glass in both hands to still the tremors that were shaking her.

Presently she said, “Peter, how is Jennifer?”

He got up and crossed to the cot, and then came back to her. “She’s quiet now,” he said. “I think she’s much the same.”

“How are you, yourself?” she asked.

“Awful,” he said. He stooped by her, and took her hand. “I think you’re worse than I am,” he told her, for she must know that. “I think I may be a day or so behind you, but not more. Perhaps that’s because I’m physically stronger.”

She nodded slowly. Then she said, “There’s no hope at all, is there? For any of us?”

He shook his head. “Nobody gets over this one, dear.”

She said, “I don’t believe I’ll be able to get to the bathroom tomorrow. Peter dear, I think I’d like to have it tonight, and take Jennifer with me. Would you think that beastly?”

He kissed her. “I think it’s sensible,” he said. “I’ll come too.”

She said weakly, “You’re not so ill as we are.”

“I shall be tomorrow,” he said. “It’s no good going on.”

She pressed his hand. “What do we do, Peter?”

He thought for a moment. “I’ll go and fill the hot-water bags and put them in the bed,” he said. “Then you put on a clean nightie and go to bed and keep warm. I’ll bring Jennifer in there. Then I’ll shut up the house and bring you a hot drink, and we’ll have it in bed together, with the pill.”

“Remember to turn off the electricity at the main,” she said. “I mean, mice can chew through a cable and set the house on fire.”

“I’ll do that,” he said.

She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. “Will you do what has to be done for Jennifer?”

He stroked her hair. “Don’t worry,” he said gently. “I’ll do that.”

He filled the hot-water bags and put them in the bed, tidying it and making it look fresh as he did so. Then he helped her into the bedroom. He went into the kitchen and put the kettle on for the last time, and while it boiled he read the directions on the three red cartons again very carefully.

He filled a thermos jug with the boiling water, and put it neatly on a tray with the two glasses, the brandy, and half a lemon, and took it into the bedroom. Then he wheeled the cot back and put it by the bedside. Mary was in bed looking clean and fresh; she sat up weakly as he wheeled the cot to her.

He said, “Shall I pick her up?” He thought that she might like to hold the baby for a little.

She shook her head. “She’s too ill.” She sat looking down at the child for a minute, and then lay back wearily. “I’d rather think about her like she was, when we were all well. Give her the thing, Peter, and let’s get this over.”

She was right, he thought; it was better to do things quickly and not agonize about them. He gave the baby the injection in the arm. Then he undressed himself and put on clean pyjamas, turned out all the lights in the flat except their bedside light, put up the fire screen in the sitting room, and lit a candle that they kept in case of a blackout of the electricity. He put that on the table by their bed and turned off the current at the main.

He got into bed with Mary, mixed the drinks, and took the tablets out of the red cartons. “I’ve had a lovely time since we got married,” she said quietly. “Thank you for everything, Peter.”

He drew her to him and kissed her. “I’ve had a grand time, too,” he said. “Let’s end on that.”

They put the tablets in their mouths, and drank.

That evening Dwight Towers rang up Moira Davidson at Harkaway. He doubted when he dialled if he would get through, or if he did, whether there would be an answer from the other end. But the automatic telephone was still functioning, and Moira answered him almost at once.

“Say,” he said, “I wasn’t sure I’d get an answer. How are things with you, honey?”

“Bad,” she said. “I think Mummy and Daddy are just about through.”

“And you?”

“I’m just about through, too, Dwight. How are you?”

“I’d say I’m much the same,” he said. “I rang to say good-bye for the time being, honey. We’re taking Scorpion out tomorrow morning to sink her.”

“You won’t be coming back?” she asked.

“No, honey. We shan’t be coming back. We’ve just got this last job to do, and then we’ve finished.” He paused. “I called to say thank you for the last six months,” he said. “It’s meant a lot to me, having you near.”

“It’s meant a lot to me, too,” she said. “Dwight, if I can make it, may I come and see you off?”

He hesitated for a moment. “Sure,” he said. “We can’t wait, though. The men are pretty weak right now, and they’ll be weaker by tomorrow.”

“What time are you leaving?”

“We’re casting off at eight o’clock,” he said. “As soon as it’s full daylight.”

She said, “I’ll be there.”

He gave her messages for her father and her mother, and then rang off. She went through to their bedroom, where they were lying in their twin beds, both of them sicker than she was, and gave them the messages. She told them what she wanted to do. “I’ll be back by dinnertime,” she said.

Her mother said, “You must go and say good-bye to him, dearie. He’s been such a good friend for you. But if we’re not here when you come back, you must understand.”

She sat down on her mother’s bed. “As bad as that, Mummy?”

“I’m afraid so, dear. And Daddy’s worse than me today. But we’ve got everything we need, in case it gets too bad.”

From his bed her father said weakly, “Is it raining?”

“Not at the moment, Daddy.”

“Would you go out and open the stockyard gate into the lane, Moira? All the other gates are open, but they must be able to get at the hay.”

“I’ll do that right away, Daddy. Is there anything else I can do?”

He closed his eyes. “Give Dwight my regards. I wish he’d been able to marry you.”

“So do I,” she said. “But he’s the kind of man who doesn’t switch so easily as that.”

She went out into the night and opened the gate and checked that all the other gates in the stockyard were open; the beasts were nowhere to be seen. She went back into the house and told her father what she had done; he seemed relieved. There was nothing that they wanted; she kissed them both good night and went to bed herself, setting her little alarm clock for five o’clock in case she slept.

She slept very little. In the course of the night she visited the bathroom four times, and drank half a bottle of brandy, the only thing she seemed to be able to keep down. She got up when the alarm went off and had a hot shower, which refreshed her, and dressed in the red shirt and slacks that she had worn when she had met Dwight first of all, so many months ago. She made her face up with some care and put on an overcoat. Then she opened the door of her parents’ room quietly and looked in, shading the light of an electric torch between her fingers. Her father seemed to be asleep, but her mother smiled at her from the bed; they, too, had been up and down most of the night. She went in quietly and kissed her mother, and then went, closing the door softly behind her.

She took a fresh bottle of brandy from the larder and went out to the car, and started it, and drove off on the road to Melbourne. Near Oakleigh she stopped on the deserted road in the first grey light of dawn, and took a swig out of the bottle, and went on.

She drove through the deserted city and out along the drab, industrial road to Williamstown. She came to the dockyard at about a quarter past seven; there was no guard at the open gates and she drove straight in to the quay, beside which lay the aircraft carrier. There was no sentry on the gangway, no officer of the day to challenge her. She walked into the ship trying to remember how she had gone when Dwight had showed her the submarine, and presently she ran into an American rating who directed her to the steel port in the ship’s side from which the gangway led down to the submarine.

She stopped a man who was going down to the vessel. “If you see Captain Towers, would you ask him if he could come up and have a word with me?” she said.

“Sure, lady,” he replied. “I’ll tell him right away,” and presently Dwight came in view, and came up the gangway to her.

He was looking very ill, she thought, as they all were. He took her hands regardless of the onlookers. “It was nice of you to come to say good-bye,” he said. “How are things at home, honey?”

“Very bad,” she said. “Daddy and Mummy will be finishing quite soon, and I think I shall, too. This is the end of it for all of us, today.” She hesitated, and then said, “Dwight, I want to ask something.”

“What’s that, honey?”

“May I come with you, in the submarine?” She paused, and then she said, “I don’t believe that I’ll have anything at home to go back to. Daddy said I could just park the Customline in the street and leave it. He won’t be using it again. May I come with you?”

He stood silent for so long that she knew the answer would be no. “I’ve been asked the same thing by four men this morning,” he said. “I’ve refused them all, because Uncle Sam wouldn’t like it. I’ve run this vessel in the navy way right through, and I’m running her that way up till the end. I can’t take you, honey. We’ll each have to take this on our own.”

“That’s all right,” she said dully. She looked up at him. “You’ve got your presents with you?”

“Sure,” he said. “I’ve got those, thanks to you.”

“Tell Sharon about me,” she said. “We’ve nothing to conceal.”

He touched her arm. “You’re wearing the same outfit that you wore first time we met.”

She smiled faintly. “Keep him occupied—don’t give him time to think about things, or perhaps he’ll start crying. Have I done my job right, Dwight?”

“Very right indeed,” he said. He took her in his arms and kissed her, and she clung to him for a minute.

Then she freed herself. “Don’t let’s prolong the agony,” she said. “We’ve said everything there is to say. What time are you leaving?”

“Very soon,” he said. “We’ll be casting off in about five minutes.”

“What time will you be sinking her?” she asked.

He thought for a moment. “Thirty miles down the bay, and then twelve miles out. Forty-two sea miles. I shan’t waste any time. Say two hours and ten minutes after we cast off from here.”

She nodded slowly. “I’ll be thinking of you.” And then she said, “Go now, Dwight. Maybe I’ll see you in Connecticut one day.”

He drew her near to kiss her again, but she refused him. “No—go on now.” In her mind she phrased the words, “Or I’ll be the one that starts crying.” He nodded slowly, and said, “Thanks for everything,” and then he turned and went away down the gangway to the submarine.

There were two or three women now standing at the head of the gangway with her. There were apparently no men aboard the carrier to run the gangway in. She watched as Dwight appeared on the bridge from the interior of the submarine and took the con, watched as the lower end of the gangway was released, as the lines were singled up. She saw the stern line and the spring cast off, watched as Dwight spoke into the voice pipe, watched the water swirl beneath her stern as the propellers ran slow ahead and the stern swung out. It began to rain a little from the grey sky. The bow line and spring were cast off and men coiled them down and slammed the steel hatch of the superstructure shut as the submarine went slow astern in a great arc away from the carrier. Then they all vanished down below, and only Dwight with one other was left on the bridge. He lifted his hand in salutation to her, and she lifted hers to him, her eyes blurred with tears, and the low hull of the vessel swung away around Point Gellibrand and vanished in the murk.

With the other women, she turned away from the steel port. “There’s nothing now to go on living for,” she said.

One of the women replied, “Well, you won’t have to, ducks.”

She smiled faintly, and glanced at her watch. It showed three minutes past eight. At about ten minutes past ten Dwight would be going home, home to the Connecticut village that he loved so well. There was nothing now for her in her own home; if she went back to Harkaway she would find nothing there now but the cattle and sad memories. She could not go with Dwight because of naval discipline, and that she understood. Yet she could be very near him when he started home, only about twelve miles away. If then she turned up by his side with a grin on her face, perhaps he would take her with him, and she could see Helen hopping round upon the Pogo stick.

She hurried out through the dim, echoing caverns of the dead aircraft carrier, and found the gangway, and went down on to the quay to her big car. There was plenty of petrol in the tank; she had filled it up from the cans hidden behind the hay the previous day. She got into it and opened her bag; the red carton was still there. She uncorked the bottle of brandy and took a long swallow of the neat liquor; it was good, that stuff, because she hadn’t had to go since she left home. Then she started the car and swung it round upon the quay, and drove out of the dockyard, and on through minor roads and suburbs till she found the highway to Geelong.

Once on the highway she trod on it, and went flying down the unobstructed road at seventy miles an hour in the direction of Geelong, a bareheaded, white-faced girl in a bright crimson costume, slightly intoxicated, driving a big car at speed. She passed Laverton with its big aerodrome, Werribee with its experimental farm, and went flying southwards down the deserted road. Somewhere before Corio a spasm shook her suddenly, so that she had to stop and retire into the bushes; she came out a quarter of an hour later, white as a sheet, and took a long drink of her brandy.

Then she went on, as fast as ever. She passed the grammar school away on the left and came to shabby, industrial Corio, and so to Geelong, dominated by its cathedral. In the great tower the bells were ringing for some service. She slowed a little to pass through the city but there was nothing on the road except deserted cars at the roadside. She only saw three people, all of them men.

Out of Geelong upon the fourteen miles of road to Barwon Heads and to the sea. As she passed the flooded common she felt her strength was leaving her, but there was now not far to go. A quarter of an hour later she swung right into the great avenue of macrocarpa that was the main street of the little town. At the end she turned left away from the golf links and the little house where so many happy hours of childhood had been spent, knowing now that she would never see it again. She turned right at the bridge at about twenty minutes to ten and passed through the empty caravan park up on to the headland. The sea lay before her, grey and rough with great rollers coming in from the south on to the rocky beach below.

The ocean was empty and grey beneath the overcast, but away to the east there was a break in the clouds and a shaft of light striking down on to the waters. She parked across the road in full view of the sea, got out of her car, took another drink from her bottle, and scanned the horizon for the submarine. Then as she turned towards the lighthouse on Point Lonsdale and the entrance to Port Phillip Bay she saw the low grey shape appear, barely five miles away and heading southwards from the Heads.

She could not see detail but she knew that Dwight was there upon the bridge, taking his ship out on her last cruise. She knew he could not see her and he could not know that she was watching, but she waved to him. Then she got back into the car because the wind was raw and chilly from south polar regions, and she was feeling very ill, and she could watch him just as well when sitting down in shelter.

She sat there dumbly watching as the low grey shape went forward to the mist on the horizon, holding the bottle on her knee. This was the end of it, the very, very end.

Presently she could see the submarine no longer; it had vanished in the mist. She looked at her little wrist watch; it showed one minute past ten. Her childhood religion came back to her in those last minutes; one ought to do something about that, she thought. A little alcoholically she murmured the Lord’s Prayer.

Then she took out the red carton from her bag, and opened the vial, and held the tablets in her hand. Another spasm shook her, and she smiled faintly. “Foxed you this time,” she said.

She took the cork out of the bottle. It was ten past ten. She said earnestly, “Dwight, if you’re on your way already, wait for me.”

Then she put the tablets in her mouth and swallowed them down with a mouthful of brandy, sitting behind the wheel of her big car.
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