The Loneliness of Billiwoonga

A born writer, who gives himself to the stage or to mimicry or to fiction as the spirit moves him, PETER USTINOV has recently been acting in Australia, where he found the setting and inspiration for this story, the third in his new sequence.

EUROPE occupies the same position in many European hearts as does a school, loved and hated at the same time. Its habits are irreplaceable, its secret, intimate pleasures cannot be recreated in wider pastures, and yet its stern rules seem to be built on firm foundations of bigotry, its actions obedient to an ancient stupidity. Every twenty years or so, at the blow of a bugle as casual as the chiming of a clock, it is de rigueur for the healthy men to go to the railway station and leave for the frontier amid a forest of sad white handkerchiefs and the blare of martial music from the crackling speakers. What frontier? Any frontier, for they shift like the tides; politicians call them historical, generals call them strategic, simple men call them a confounded nuisance.

Jiri Polovicka was sick of it. He had been sick of it in 1939, he was sicker of it now. Born in 1904, of a Czech father and a Slovak mother, he had found himself a Hungarian citizen after the end of World War I, for no other reason than that his father had settled on the wrong side of a river. Eventually old Mr. Polovicka decided to move to his mother country, since minorities have their problems in Central Europe. Desiring to travel as far away from Hungary as the somewhat freakish geography of Czechoslovakia would allow, he opened a small grocer‘s shop in Teschen, a mining town on the Polish frontier. Life was relatively calm until the anxieties of the late thirties, when overnight the whole Polovicka family became Polish. Since their entire capital was invested in the disputed town, it was economically impossible for them to emigrate again. Whatever patriots may say when unveiling statues, the threat of starvation is a more powerful argument than abstract sentiments of belonging. Before long, Hitler had made a nonsense of all the finer feelings in any case, and Jii had not been in the Polish army for two days before he found himself a prisoner of war among people whose language he understood with difficulty, undergoing gratuitous hardships to the taste of the master race.

A spell of digging potatoes for a kindly Silesian farmer was interrupted with an offer to join a Bohemian-Moravian brigade, which was destined to fill the gaps on the eastern front when the time came. When this offer was refused with great politeness, the German government took it as a personal affront, and Jiri was sent on a visit to Ravensbruck, which was interrupted only after six months, when he was transferred to Auschwitz. The Gestapo made it clear that they considered his masquerade as a Pole a deliberate attempt to deceive them, declaring that as a Czech he was now protected by the Reich and that his engagement in a foreign army had been nothing less than treason.

Luckily for him, they took several years to decide the exact extent of this treason, and so he survived, moving from one camp to another. It was the Russians who eventually liberated him, and he spent some more time in a camp, answering endless questions to the best of his exhausted ability. They found it difficult to decide whether he was a Pole, a Hungarian, or a Czech, and seemed to be skeptical about everything he told them. Eventually they relented, and he returned to a gray, unsettled Czechoslovakia late in 1946.

His father had disappeared without trace; so had his mother. The shop was no longer there. He was forty-two years of age and felt like an orphan, drained of emotion, hard, empty, without the energy for suicide. Self-pity would have been risible under the circumstances. The hibernation had been too long, the wound too deep, too clean. He wanted to walk, to use his legs, to breathe again consciously — in, out, in, out.

For a time he worked as night watchman of a sausage factory. He was used to solitude; in fact he felt lost without it. He was not used to freedom, however, and he boiled himself some atrocious coffee every night, and every night it seemed to him a kind of miracle that such a thing was possible: to desire coffee, and to make it. These were the nights of the slow thaw. Gradually he dared to think. In time, he even dared to doubt. It was like the slow, painful recovery from some accident, an accident of the spirit.

ONE day, when he was ready, he took stock. He believed he had a distant cousin in America. America — the New World Symphony, Dvorák — where Czechs could be Czechs under the Constitution. On second thought, he didn‘t care whether he was a Czech or not. He just wanted to exist, and perhaps even find a reason for not being a pessimist. He longed for a place totally without traditions, for escape from the hothouse of Central Europe.

A casual remark overheard at work gave him the idea of Australia. There was a map on the wall of the managing director‘s office, peppered with little flags showing the areas in which the sausages were selling well.

Bulgaria seemed to be consuming nothing but sausage if the map were to be believed. Hungary tended to make its own, but Greece and Turkey were surprisingly good markets. Down there to the right, tucked in a corner, was Australia, virgin land without a Czech sausage to its name, mysterious and far away from the nightmare. The center of it seemed to have no town name for miles. This was the place for him. At night, he used to sit in the managing director‘s office and stare at this enormous island on the map, imagining the central space, unfulfilled, raw. Where there were no humans, there would be no inhumanity.

One day he knew instinctively that the moment for the great migration had come. It would have been unnatural if he had not developed a sense of impending disaster after his experiences, and now he realized there was no time to lose. Four days after he crossed the Austrian frontier, the Communists swept into power in Czechoslovakia, and once again slogans took the place of conversation.

From the International Refugee Organization in Vienna, Jiri discovered that workers were urgently needed on several hydroelectric power schemes in the highlands of New South Wales. Within two weeks he was on board the Italian steamer Salvator Rosa, heading toward Suez and freedom. The sea was calm and friendly, and he stood on deck, a slightly ludicrous figure in his thick collarless shirt, staring at the golden water as though it were a fire, a background for fantasy. He was not dreaming at all, since he had nothing to dream about. He had no imagination about the unknown. Even in the office, gazing at the empty map, he had thought only of the emptiness, not of imaginary landscapes. Reality had been too ferocious for him ever to ignore it, even as an escape. The sun had never been so hot, and it induced an exquisite drowsiness, the voluptuous sense of well-being which dogs express when they find a particularly satisfactory undulation in the ground and blink half-blindly, waiting for sleep to overwhelm them. Jiri was as happy as he had ever been. At the same time, he could never roll up his sleeves because of that number branded on his arm, a relic of the Nazis’ administrative efficiency.

He did not talk to the other immigrants. There were Italians, Hungarians, Germans — you could never tell who was who. Safer to keep quiet. If he bumped into someone, he apologized inaudibly, or if a passenger held open one of the heavy doors for him, he muttered his thanks under his breath. The last thing he wanted was to become involved with some other Czech and wallow in all the bleak miseries, all the premature homesickness of weaker spirits leaving their habits behind them. He wanted to be alone.

In Aden he bought a silly black pillow, his first purchase in years. Stitched on it in colors alternately electric and bilious were a snow-capped peak, its reflection in some uncertain water, a minaret, and a pine tree on a slope. “Souvenir of Aden.” He had begun to build a home.

SYDNEY was much larger than he had thought, and he was both disappointed and frightened. Loneliness gripped him as his eye took in the sky line and his ear the traffic, the mumble of industry. Still, he did not stay there long but was soon on his way to the town of Billiwoonga in a large modern coach. His new land was strange, with its reckless majesty, its great green sweep, flecked with light and shade as the pregnant clouds passed in an endless procession from horizon to horizon.

Although the landscape was inanimate, it seemed to be in continuous motion. Billiwoonga, proudly marked on the map in somewhat heavier type than some of the surrounding towns, turned out to be a casual agglomeration of houses in the modern suburban style, reminiscent of married officers’ quarters on some remote air base. There was a Gothic church which might have wandered straight from a sad, misty section of London; a sparse little war memorial with one or two names on it remembered by the tiny bundles of flowers in its shadow; a row of shops; a long, low building boasting a wrought-iron arcade with tethering posts, proudly called the Royal Antipodes Hotel; and a very new construction in the contemporary bus station manner, where ex-servicemen could congregate, drink beer, play table tennis, and reminisce. Only the main street was tarred, and that only for a hundred yards or so beyond the town limits on either side.

The work on the hydroelectric scheme was tough, but the pay was good by any standards. He was perhaps a little old for some of its rigors, but the physical effort made him forget his troubles, and it was good to fall asleep out of sheer weariness. It was the weekends he dreaded. This was not like the ship; there was no chance of escaping comradeship here. There was not even a chance of avoiding other Czechs, and soon an unreasoning homesickness began to bewilder him, a longing for a country which had only vaguely been his home, and then under oppressive circumstances.

It was a clash of lonelinesses which brought him and Ida together. She was a blonde girl well into the years of established spinsterhood who served powerful tea out of not too clean cups in the Anzac Café, a wooden shed which was cheerful enough, in a slightly desperate way, to emphasize the desolation outside. The blondeness of Ida was not of the kind that people are born with, and her skin was clogged with powder, which suggested a determined counterattack against the callousness of time and the brutality of nature. Her powerfully aquiline nose and the watery blue eyes set comically low gave her an air of some German princeling connected vaguely to international royalty at the turn of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, isolated from her head and stridently unmusical voice, her body was full and generous, as Jiri noticed whenever the copious bosom shuddered over his table. He found it more and more difficult to concentrate on the slender menu.

She was not unmoved by his attentions. Often she would shoot a glance of studied negligence in the direction of this miserable little fellow with eyes the color of dry stones, who was too shy to raise his voice in ordering his tea. His smile was pleasant though, and she liked his walk as he came in, the underslung, jaunty walk of a light man of unexpected strength. The back of his neck had never grown up. It was young and defenseless and undernourished.

After a while, the little smiles, the hesitations over the choice of food, the awkward jokes about his bad English became a habit, and before long they left the café together. He knew from experience when the place closed, and he consequently went for his supper later and later. One day they found themselves on the pavement side by side. It was dark, and she put her arm through his. After a few yards they kissed, both more astonished than passionate. They had both given up hope so long ago.

She lay beside him in her narrow bed, and all her being was alive, craving, warm. When he closed his eyes, he knew that the most beautiful woman in the world was his and that he was the most desirable of men. The illusion of perfection has many levels, and, being an illusion, it is obedient to the mind.

The romance did not last long. They were too old to spend much time dragging a ration of conventional poetry out of the moon‘s presence on a night too cold for kissing. It was too late in life for them to excite each other with the suggestive words of popular songs, those prefabricated bits of utility seduction, pumped out around the clock by radio, the people’s Casanova. For them were the moments of pleasant indolence snatched around a fire, the crackle of a newspaper, the impact of teacup and saucer, the song of the kettle, the feeling that they had known each other a long time, since youth perhaps — security. Being a woman, however, and a big woman at that, Ida soon began to exercise those driving and sometimes sinister qualities which her sisters Messalina and Delilah and Lady Macbeth had put to effective use in more ample periods of history. Although both she and Jiri had so recently been forcibly content with mere survival, she took their new-found luck for granted much more quickly than he dared to and began to tell him that work on the hydroelectric scheme was beneath his dignity.

“But the money good,” he would remonstrate, “sixty Owstralian pound a veek!”

“You‘re better than a mere laborer” was her reply, always uttered with absurd yet dangerous passion. “You got class. Look at those sensitive hands of yours. You goin’ to spend your life in that crook tunnel now you’ve got me? Another I tie was blown to bits only last Friday, nice young fellow with a lovely singin’ voice. Small wonder the money‘s good — the work‘s dangerous. No, Georgie, you’ve got responsibilities now, and it‘s time you was your own master.”

What did she mean? He gazed at his hands and saw nothing particularly sensitive there — ten spatulate fingers culminating in corrugated nails. He must remember to clean them. Without arguments, he could only repeat, “Money good.”

“Listen,” she said softly, altering her feminine tactics with the grace of a locomotive, “you know Aldo Zenoni. He started work in the tunnel like all the other new Australian boys. Then he began patching clothing torn at work. They’d all come to him. He‘d do a dinkum job, you see. Then one day he got married to an Irish girl, local girl. She gave him the confidence he was lackin’. That’s what wives are for. He left the tunnel and set up shop. Now he’s got the Venezia dress and men’s wear store in Billiwoonga, with a branch in Canberra selling sweaters to the embassies.”

“Yeah, that‘s one case,” replied Jiri, miserably.

“One case? You seen them six-wheel trucks goin’ around with that man‘s name on the door, that Polish man whose name nobody can pronounce? The biggest haulage contractor for miles. How did he start? In the tunnel. Kept his eyes open. Noticed there was a transport shortage. Started with one pre-war truck. Now he‘s got thirty, brand-new. Or take the Germans. They stick together, like the Jews. Old Heidelberg Cordial factory, Otto‘s Delicatessen, K. K. Dry Cleaning, the new garage on the corner of Snowy River Street and Imperial Way, the one that handles the Volkswagen — they’re all Germanowned. and the owners all came over to work on the tunnel. It‘s only no-hopers who go on working up in the mountains. ‘Clause they make good money, but what they got to do with it? They come down here of a weekend with fifty, sixty, seventy quid in their pockets, and they go lookin’ for women. There aren‘t any. Men outnumber women ten to one in Billiwoonga. You’re lucky to have got me, you are. They get shickered, fight, and go back to the tunnel of a Monday dead-broke. I tell you, Georgie, them alecks from the tunnels got a lot of money to spend. That’s why the smarties stay in town and open up shop. There’s prosperity when you’ve got a lot of men loaded with money and nothin’ to spend it on.”

There was no answer to this. It was true.

One day she added a curious note to her usual catalogue of temptations, saying, “I‘ll have to get you in with the Germans; they‘re the hardest workers.”

Jiri had been in with the Germans before and had no desire to renew the experience, but when he talked, she no longer listened. She had a friend, a little younger than herself but quite as homely, a girl who had also braved the distant provinces in an unconscious search for men with less discriminating tastes. This person, whose name was Floss, had married one of the German colony of Billiwoonga, a Herr Willi Schumacher, now Mr. Bill Shoemaker, an enterprising immigrant who had founded a radio repair shop, to which he had added a sporting goods shop and even a small factory manufacturing carbonated beverages.

It was not long before the ambitious Ida had talked the head off Floss and even succeeded in penetrating the wary defenses of Bill Shoemaker. Her idea was a restaurant which would be run by Jiri and herself on a partnership basis with the Shoemakers.

“I don‘t like to stick my neck out in a business I don’t know,” said Bill in his curious accent, half Australian, half North German.

“Did you know the radio repair business when you went into it?” asked Ida with her usual fire.

“I was knowing how to mend a radio.”

“Did you know about huntin’ rifles and games of Scrabble and plastic dinghies?”

“Rifles, yes.”

“And did you know about fizzy lemonades and all those crook drinks you put out? Well, I do know about the caterin’ business, and, as for Georgie, he worked in a sausage factory back in Czecho-slavia where he came from. You‘ve got a Syrian coffeehouse in Billiwoonga, a Yugo-thing one, an Itie one, and not one German one, although you’re the biggest group of new Aussies in town. A disgrace, I call it!”

“What a woman!” cried Bill with a chuckle, while Floss looked at her friend with more than a trace of jealousy.

WHEN Jiri and Ida were married, Bill was best man, and the reception afterwards was held in the newly painted shell of the Rhinegold Restaurant. It was a day of elation, although Jiri felt, every time he looked at Bill, that he had seen him somewhere before. The memory was not unpleasant; on the contrary, Bill had a rather agreeable face, a long turned-up nose, twinkling blue eyes, hair with a tendency to curl, and a huge mouth, which was always eager to smile. He was ever ready with a proverb for a given situation, but he chose well from his vast compendium of platitudes, and this extreme quickness on the draw with the correct folksy comment gave his personality a twist of irony which removed him from the body of struggling mankind. It was as though he saw and studied the paradoxes of existence from a point of vantage, and that inspired confidence. Jiri admired such a man.

“I toast our new partners, George and Ida, or should I say, Ida and George Pollen?” said Bill, raising his glass of Australian champagne; and, holding up a hand to silence the enthusiastic clapping, he went on. “I welcome the fact that Billiwoonga, the home for so many from us, will at last have a proper German — Czech — Central European restaurant of quality, where you can gather in an evening and enjoy Bratwurst, Königsberger Klopse, Kasseler Kippenspehr, and all the other dishes we remember and love from our home towns. We will give you quality with value, service with smiles, and I know I can trust you to give us your patronage. I now call upon Mr. Victor Ludlow to propose the toast of the newlyweds.”

Mr. Victor Ludlow, who had arrived in Sydney Witold Lubomirski from Lwów, made an eloquent speech about the George Pollens, describing them as symbols of the new Australia, which was rising like a phoenix from the conflagration of European despair, and pictures were taken in profusion by Mr. Bernie Peters, who was born Bratislav Petrosevic in Zagreb. Ida found it intensely romantic to be treated as an immigrant, and late in the day she attempted a drunken Serbian folk dance to the accompaniment of an accordion, a fife, and two soupspoons used as castanets. There were tears in many eyes as the party broke up. It had created a little intimacy, a little claustrophobia, in a land which so singularly lacked it.

Business was good. It could hardly be otherwise. The only problems were the weekend drunks and the licensing laws. Bill had been accorded a license for beer and wines, but the sale of hard liquor in the Rhinegold was prohibited. Still, the lonely would force their way in on Saturdays and Sundays, begging for drinks in their various languages, and it was not always easy to refuse them. Not to break the law could be bad for business. Nobody, except the police, cares for a spoilsport. The Rhinegold could soon afford a threepiece orchestra, which droned through the clink of cutlery as orchestras do the world over, making conversation impossible for those who have it and sparing the necessity for conversation in those without it.

As Monday was a slack day, Bill and George tised to go hunting, like gentlemen in the Old World. It was on one of these jaunts that George told Bill of his feeling that they had met before.

“Funny you should say that,” Bill replied. “I was having the same feeling. Were you spending much time in Sydney?”

“One day.”

“Ah, well, it couldn’t have been there.”

There was a pause as they scanned the horizon for ducks.

“In Europe maybe?” George ventured.

“I doubt it. I didn’t get about much. As soon as the war was over, I was packing my bags and come out here.”

“During the war — ?”

“No. No, it couldn’t be. Why, where were you to that time?”

“Me? Oh,” George sighed. “You really want to know?”

“My motto is, Ask no questions, you’ll be told no lies.”

“I’ve nothing to hide,” said George. “I was in Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, Belsen, Dachau, Mauthausen, and some others.”

“You’re not Jewish, are you?” asked Bill, raising his rifle to his shoulder.

“No. Why?”

“Most of them poor bastards ended up in the camps, at least so they tell to me.”

“Oh, not only Jews.”

“No? Well, I only go by what I’m told. That whole time I could have done without. Like pigs they were all behaving, everyone — we, the Allies. ... I never think of it.”

“Where were you in that time?”

Bill brought down his rifle. “Me? Where you think? In the Army. Medical orderly. To Greece they sent me. And North Africa. The flies was worse than the enemy. Then I was getting out.”



“You had ulcers?”

Bill smiled. “No.”

George looked at his friend in intense admiration. Even then he had the makings of a great industrialist.

Bill said softly, “You are not spending your time helping out a doctor without you learn something yourself.”

IT WAS on a Friday that Ida announced she was pregnant. It was scarcely credible, and yet Dr. Chalkburner, who, as Dr. Kalkbrunner, had been a leading specialist in Szeged, was categorical about it. Once again champagne was drunk, and George made a down payment on a small modern house. He also bought an American car, old but very large. His friend Bill gave him a magnificent hunting rifle when he heard the news. As George accepted the gift speechlessly, he racked his brains for all the kindnesses which he had ever known, trying to remember, trying to place his friend.

The Rhinegold expanded. It now had nearly thirty tables. As Ida’s time drew near, extra help was hired. The standard dropped slightly, but people didn‘t notice. It had been established as the elegant meeting place in Billiwoonga.

Then, one morning when George was already at work, stocktaking, the phone rang. It was Dr. Chalkburner, who told him that Ida had been rushed to the local hospital and that there was nothing to worry about. George called Bill immediately. Bill told him to close the restaurant and that he would meet him at the hospital.

“We can‘t afford close the restaurant just for this,” said George in the waiting room when Bill arrived. “Is Saturday, best day of the week.”

“Listen, you’re not becoming a father every day,” replied Bill. “I remember when young John was being born I was near broke. I was only having the radio store then, and we wasn‘t make too good a start, but I shut the shop. As I was leaving to come to the hospital, a customer she arrived. I was turning her away.”

“All the same — Saturday.”

Bill laughed pleasantly. “If the child is being born in the next few minutes, we can open the restaurant tonight. Don’t worry about it. Here, I bring a bottle of schnapps, the real German schnapps. We need it.” As they drank, George was overcome by conflicting emotions, those of joy and an intense, inexplicable sorrow. He was frightened for his wife. Everything in the waiting room was so functional, so workaday; the weather was nondescript. It was hardly a fitting background for a great, a fearful event.

“What will you call it?” asked Bill.

George was grateful for his tact. Bill seemed to understand the anguish in his friend’s heart, and his words were like steppingstones over an abyss.

“If it’s a girl, Ida. If is a boy, Malcolm.”

“Why Malcolm?” asked Bill with genuine surprise.

“I don’t know. Is a good name. So far from the names we know. When I think on my life, I not understand how I ever came to this position — almost a father, married, with a car and house and a business. Them camps, they was end of the world —”

“Yes, yes,” interrupted Bill, almost harshly, “but don’t think of that now. In this Australia of ours, no one has a past, everyone has a future. I never don’t want to see Europe again. I know the food’s better, the workmanship is better. There’s more amusement, there is no licensing laws, but I want a future for my kids which is different from what I was knowing. By the time they is my age, this shall be a place worth living in, and God only knows what Europe shall be like.”

“I ask to myself why we always is talk English to one other,” said George. “We is both speak German better.”

Bill refused to go home for lunch, and as the afternoon wore on and the schnapps dwindled, the relationship between the two men became warmer than it had ever been.

“I will never know how thank you, Bill.”

“I need no thanks. You are a good worker, and a good worker is a good partner, and to have both together is good business. We have good wives. They’re not beautiful, but beautiful wives means trouble. Wives should be good cooks, good housekeepers, good mothers, good in bed. That’s all I am asking.”

“Everything good.”

“Everything good,” echoed Bill.

Just then the nurse came in and announced in a measured, air-hostess voice that it was a boy. Malcolm Pollen had entered the world and, more particularly, Australia.

GEORGE would not hear of closing the restaurant, and at seven o’clock it was open for dinner and crowded. As the evening wore on, the usual drunks came in, begging for alcohol. Two in particular became obstreperous. One was German, the other a Czech. They banged the table and threatened to sing. They demanded that the three-piece orchestra play Lili Marlene.

George tried to reason with one in Czech. It did no good. The Czech began to weep and said he was far from home. What did he want? Slivovitz — to remind him. Bill came up to the table. The German drunkenly began to run down Australia and demanded liquor. Anything they had.

“Better give them some slivovitz in a coffee cup to keep them quiet,” said Bill softly.

“When we serve them and they start break up the place, we not able call police. We no license, said George.

“We‘ll say they come in here drunk.”

“O.K., if you say.”

A moment later, Bill glanced across at the drunks from behind the cash register. They were no longer drunk but were writing surreptitiously on bits of paper. He looked at the service hatch and saw the waiter approaching with two coffee cups on a tray. He rushed through the tables to intercept the waiter, and, just before the latter had reached the drunks, he pushed the tray onto the floor, shouting, “You clumsy idiot, can‘t you look what you doing?”

George came up when he heard the noise and saw Bill apologizing to the drunks.

“Get hold of that cup on the floor,” said one drunk to the other, now cold-sober.

Bill trod on the cups.

George knew at once that the drunks were detectives from the 21 Division, a curious flying squad of agents provocateurs employed by the government of New South Wales in order to cajole restaurateurs into breaking the licensing laws. Acting drunk was one of their most successful strategies, and they were not above using agents of various nationalities in order to play upon the patriotism and homesickness and, worse, kindheartedness of the immigrant innkeeper.

George could well imagine the kind of German or Czech who would leave his own country simply in order to become a policeman elsewhere. To him that was hardly the point of voluntary exile, but he knew there were people in the world who felt lost outside a uniform or at least outside the Strait jacket of authority.

The German detective brusquely revealed his identity and demanded, in German, to examine the broken coffee cup. Bill went white with anger. He began shouting insults, also in German. A great vein, like a tree, rose and throbbed on his temple. For a moment, his fury seemed to spill over into epilepsy. The two detectives shouted back, and a few diners rose to add the weight of their opinions to the brawl.

George had never heard Bill speak German before, let alone shout it. Medical orderly? He saw a room full of naked people, men and women, some of transparent thinness, others bloated by hunger, and he smelled the odor of decomposition. The voice carried him back into the half-light, the white coats of the doctors, the parchment yellow of the naked flesh, the glint of glasses, the routine of the nightmare. Stout Dr. Tichte, loading his hypodermic dispassionately, swabbing with cotton wool, holding out his pudgy hands for implements. “Cough.” “Cough.” Breathe.”. “Deeper.” “Take him away.” “Unusable.” A quiet, rational voice. And behind him, in brown, under a brown cap, shouting hysterically, a great vein, like a tree, throbbing on his temple, another man. “Still stehen!” “Schweine!” “Schweine!”

“Judische Rassenschander!

AS THE shouting increased in volume, George tottered to the kitchen and vomited on the floor. Now he remembered his friend. When he got home, the house was empty. Ida was in the hospital, sleeping in her pain and contentment. He switched on the lights. It was too light. He switched them off. It was too dark. He opened the window. It was too cold. He opened another one and stared into the night. He was burning with fever. He must kill his partner, as a memorial to those who had died uselessly. First, he must torture him. He played out the scene in his head a hundred times, perfecting it, polishing it. He saw Bill scream, cringe, beg for mercy in a hundred different ways. There would be no mercy. He would shoot him with his own gun, his present. There’s irony.

But why all these presents? Why had this savage been so kind to him? Could it be that he had developed some kind of conscience? Had Bill remembered him when they had first met in Australia? Out of the millions who had passed through his hands in Mauthausen? Hardly. Even if he were only a symbol of contrition, however, it could be that good and evil were not equated in that unhappy heart and that he, George Pollen, had become the means by which Bill was able to look men in the face again. Nonsense. Bill had existed comfortably and commercially in Billiwoonga for a long time without such help.

“In this Australia of ours, no man has a past, every man has a future.” How very convenient. It was made convenient by the Australians themselves. He remembered the rumors around the International Refugee Organization in Vienna. America was hard to get into, even Canada insisted on a thorough screening, but Australia would take those rejected by the other two. Who could tell what venomous seeds had been scattered in the wilderness?

The idea of murder gave him comfort, and he tried to sleep on the sofa. He dreamed, and his own shrieks awakened him. He looked at his watch. He had been asleep ten minutes.

A distant cock crowed, and a dog barked somewhere. He went out into the darkness and walked. He had no idea on which dirt road he was when dawn broke, but suddenly, after a lew moments of slate-gray sadness, a vast, trumpeting sun burst over the black trees and a market place of birds opened among the branches. The earth seemed to turn in her light sleep, and night died painlessly in a second.

It was hot almost at once in the sun, cold in the shadows. He stared at this curious land, at the weird boulders which had been scattered over the landscape during some prehistoric flatulence of the earth. The dying gum trees stood among the dead, white unburied corpses, the aftermath of battle. Mauthausen again. The piles of bodies. He wanted to kick himself. That was self-pity, overdramatization. The trees had died not out of malice but out of neglect, which was almost worse. They had been allowed to die: permission for them to die had been granted. And those still alive were waiting.

He shuddered. Life was valuable, and everything mattered. Near his foot, a civilization of ants was building its empire, every bit as important as Australia, as Czechoslovakia, a microcosm, but none the less a world. The course of their labors took them over a large stone. They were building their hydroelectric scheme. He smiled slightly at the thought, then frowned as he realized that with one foot he could kill a squadron of them. He could do so easily, without remorse, since he could not communicate with them. A man cannot feel affection for an ant. Life is imperfect.

“Still stehen!” “Schweine!”

He was a father, for the first, doubtless the only, time in his life, a father in his late forties. It was a day of considerable importance, of joy. And yet here he was contemplating revenge. Oh, what to do? He held his head in his cupped hands and suddenly yawned. He was tired. When you are at a loss, nature takes over, irreverently, mockingly. He walked slowly back to town, his hands in his pockets.

If he broke the partnership, he would have to give up the house. By now he was probably too old for the tunnel. It would mean starting afresh, humbly. Was that fair for Ida or Malcolm? A new thought struck him. Could he have been mistaken about Bill? It was so long ago. He had heard so much shouting in his time. Voices resemble each other. They are bound to. Vocal chords have less range than faces, fewer possibilities for difference. In his heart, he knew there was no mistake.

He would give the rifle back. A rifle, of all things, as a gift! How could he without explanation? Explanation would break up the partnership. He would either have to destroy utterly or to leave everything as it was. Ants.

Ten minutes later he was at home. He looked at his house, something where there had been nothing. Through the window he saw the cushion lying on the sofa, still dented where his head had been. “Souvenir of Aden.” He had started with that. He opened the front door. A pram stood in the entrance hall, new and gleaming. A price tag was still fixed to the axle. He heard a noise behind him. There, before the door, its tail wagging, its ears sharp, its eyes both generous and febrile, stood a red kelpie, one of the multitude of stray dogs which infested Billiwoonga, chasing cars in the main street.

George found these dogs a nuisance.

“Don‘t go away,” he said, and fetched it a large meal from the kitchen.

At eleven o‘clock he went to the restaurant, followed by the kelpie. Bill arrived shortly afterward, haggard and furtive.

It shall mean a thirty-quid fine,” he said, “and there may be a charge for assault. Never mind, if I was having it over again, I would use the same language on those bastards.”

“Those schweine,” said George in German.

“Ja, ja, schweine. Schweinehunde,” replied Bill absently.

George continued to talk German. “Like the Gestapo,”he said.

“Genau. Die selbe Mentalität. Dass die Australische Regierung hier so el was erlauht!”

“They exist everywhere,” said George, still in German, “the police and others. It‘s not a question of uniform, it‘s a question of mentality. Creators and destroyers. Masters and slaves. An employee can be a master, an employer a slave, just as a policeman can be a human being and a man you’d never suspect can be a policeman. It‘s a question of mentality.”

“I suppose there‘s something in that,” murmured Bill, and then looked up suddenly with a hunted expression and asked, “Why are we talking German?”

“Oh, I don‘t know. Force of habit, I suppose,” answered George.

“Force of habit?”

Bill blinked nervously, searching George’s face. Suddenly Bill was pathetic, so strong was his desire to be liked. Every gesture was a bribe — the rifle, the schnapps — the payment of a debt on the installment system.

“Force of habit. I’ll be back soon. I’m going to the bank.”

“To the bank?”

George left Bill looking after him through the restaurant window, and after a short visit to the bank he bought a bunch of flowers and walked to the hospital, still followed by the dog.