Under Another Sky 4

CHAPTER 4

Dereck and Juli left the following morning. Pamela and Dino in their school uniforms, Marion, elegant in a flowing woollen dressing gown, and María, were up to say good bye. It was very cold and misty but the storm had blown away. Because he had the pickup full of different things he had needed for the farm, Dereck had driven it through the iron gates the night before and onto the front lawn, for safety from petty thieves.

Juli kissed every one goodbye, (even María, whose warm brown cheek she found raised expectantly when she came to her) Dereck loaded her suitcases into the space he had reserved for them, hugged his family good bye and leapt into the pickup. Dino opened the gates as Juli climbed into the wide comfortable seat beside Dereck, and revving the motor he backed out of the garden. Juli saw Marion looking with horror at the trenches the wheels had left in the soft, rain-drenched lawn and thought, “Poor Marion, having to put up with Dereck and Peter always ruining the image she spends so much time working on.”

She did not feel like talking, and Dereck, surprisingly, concentrated on his driving. Once again they took the avenue in the direction Peter and Juli had come three days earlier, and from that, onto others. Leaving Buenos Aires seemed interminable, they drove through one district after another distinguished only by their signposts. Crowds of people waited patiently in endless queues at the bus stops, the buses were full, but more passengers crammed on, struggling and heaving against the tightly packed bodies inside. Juli marvelled that the drivers could drive, dole out tickets, receive payment and give change in all that heavy traffic.

Old and rickety, brand new and flashy, the cars, vans and buses streamed forward towards their various destinations, stopping at the traffic lights and then rolling on like a multicoloured metal river, eddying and flowing ceaselessly along its smoothly paved course.

At eight the sun rose and the sky, which had been growing steadily lighter blossomed into a luminous ceiling of cloud, speckled with greys and browns. “A mackerel sky,” Juli thought and stared at it with interest, surprised that even clouds could be so different from those in other corners of the world. Landscape, sky-scape, people, language, all different, all new and strange. But not hostile. Indeed Juli felt strangely welcome, although small and incidental, in this enormous country.

At last the houses fell away and they were driving between great flat fields bordered by wire fences. Here and there small clumps of trees indicated the presence of a dwelling or a mill with a trough. Cattle were spread out grazing, the colour of the pastures varying from soft grey-greens through ochre to silver. The road was a straight grey ribbon pinned down by telephone poles. The traffic dwindled and the sense of space and loneliness became ever more pressing as the clouds began to break up and drift westwards over the pampas, leaving no veils between the table flat land and the endless vastness of the universe.

Dereck had been fiddling with the radio for some time, irritated at its obstinate silence. It occurred to Juli that he seemed unusually uncommunicative and tense. At once she wondered if perhaps, overnight, he had begun to regret having employed her; had realized that a girl of twenty-three without any training would not be capable of complying with what he and Lena had in mind, or, worse still, he considered her unsuitable for the job.

She thought carefully of what she had said at dinner the night before, and of the general conversation, in order to try and discover a clue to his present silence and nervousness. It didn’t seem likely that his imminent return home should change him so. It was something else Juli felt, something to do with herself. She came to the conclusion that Dereck had decided that she was not, after all, suitable but they would have to make the best of a bad job and put up with her for better or worse.

In her turn feeling edgy and upset, Juli wondered what she ought to do and made up her mind to suggest a three month trial period. If they were not satisfied then she would go back to Buenos Aires and find some sort of secretarial job, if she could, and try and earn the money to pay for her return trip. Except that that too was ridiculous. If at the end of three months they all decided by mutual accord not to carry on with the arrangement, Dereck was bound to honour his contract and pay her passage. Well … that was something that could be arranged.

Juli continued musing as to what, in her, could have made Dereck regret Mrs. Horn’s choice. Perhaps he wanted someone more extroverted, or bigger physically or more bouncy or something. Time would tell. Perhaps he was only full of prejudices, or Lena was, and after a while he would change his mind again. She tried to pay attention to the landscape but found it impossible.

Suddenly the radio burst into life, so loud that Juli gave a start of surprise. Dereck reduced the volume and twiddled the knobs until he found a station which was transmitting pop music, then he laughed at her triumphantly. “Damn thing works when it wants,” he said loudly, over the music. “This is quite a good programme, bright music all morning.”

Juli nodded. “How many stations are there,” she asked.

“About five or six in the Federal Capital, most are privately owned. Only Radio Municipal and Radio Nacional carry no advertising, the others are all commercial.”

“I see,” Juli said and leaned back, glad to have something to occupy her anxious mind.

At ten thirty Dereck drew up at a petrol station and suggested that they should have a coffee at the bar alongside. Juli clambered out of the pickup stiffly and stared about her. After the noise of the music and the motor the silence seemed almost a presence. It was a humble rather run-down sort of place and she wondered, as she walked past a varied assortment of dogs sleeping in the sun, why Dereck had chosen this bar and not a better-kept one. She pushed open the door of the bar and found herself in a fairly large room with a number of small, formica-topped tables each with their retinue of four chairs apiece.

At one end was a bar-cum-frigidaire. Three gas radiators, fed by their individual metal containers of bottled gas, hung glowing on the wall opposite the entrance creating pools of warmth in the stale air. Juli chose a table at random and sat down, wondering whether she should talk over her decision about the three month trial or wait a bit. She decided to drink her coffee first before broaching the subject, for she felt nervous and a little light headed.

Dereck entered noisily, and his arrival sent small shock waves through the room. The few other customers stopped talking and glanced over at him, and the waiter, who had been about to amble over to take Juli’s order gave a glad cry and rushed across the room to shake his hand, his brown, lined face wreathed in smiles. Dereck clapped him on the shoulder and they walked over to Juli talking and laughing. A woman, wiping her hands on her grubby apron, appeared at the kitchen door smiling shyly. Dereck, on seeing her, walked over and gave her a hug. They chatted for a few minutes before she returned to her safe and familiar place by the stove and Dereck returned back to the waiter to order coffee and milk. “Do you want anything to eat?” he asked Juli. She shook her head, feeling a knot in her stomach at the very thought of food.

“I always stop here,” he remarked. “Some years ago the waiter fellow cut his hand very badly while I was here so I rushed him to the town about six kilometres away to have it seen to. He’s always been very grateful.”

Silence fell between them and when their coffee arrived Juli sipped hers miserably, very much aware that Dereck too was uneasy. At last he looked across at her, narrowing his eyes a little as if to focus her better and cleared his throat.

“Juli,” he said and Juli felt herself dissolve inside her skin. Everything seemed to become formless and liquid inside her, even her bones. Paralyzed, waiting for the sword to fall, she sat quite still looking at him, unaware that her mask, so carefully created over the years, was well in place, and that she looked quiet, poised and perfectly self assured. “There is something I must tell you … er … little Tishy, she’s three, you know, er…doesn’t talk … yet. We have taken her to specialists and doctors in Santa Rosa and Neuquen and they all say she is quite normal, brain, nerves, all that sort of thing, but a slow starter. Hence they suggest that we should speak to her in one language only. That’s why we decided someone from England who can’t speak Spanish would be ideal. I want both these children to speak English fluently, but of course nowadays it’s very difficult. We have not mentioned Tishy’s problem to the family because I simply don’t like the idea of being bombarded with ‘concerned’ questions by Marion every time I appear. The child is very shy and … refuses to speak, but she understands everything one says to her. I couldn’t tell Mrs Horn about this because it would have given the impression that Tishy is … well … abnormal or something.”

Juli drew in her breath sharply and stared at Dereck in silence, shocked by what he had just told her, and by the fact that he considered it perfectly feasible to have brought her out to Argentina to look after his three year old daughter without having told her the true reason. She felt suddenly very angry, furious in fact that a ‘grown-up’ should act in such a way. All her former nervousness disappeared and she clenched her fists on her lap in an effort to control the rush of angry words which rose to her lips. How dare he? How dare he?

Her eyes blazing, she said “I’m not trained in any way to look after children with difficulties. The least you could have done was to let me know. I might do Tishy harm through doing or saying the wrong thing … I …”

“My dear child, the specialists have assured us that Tishy is quite normal, all that’s wrong with her is that she finds two languages confusing and as soon as she hears one all the time then she’ll start talking right away. Lena had an Argentine girl helping her when Tishy was born so there was always this problem of two languages. That’s why we decided to ask Florrie Horn to find someone for us in England. The girl we had, had no experience either. We’re not looking for some professional full of methods and prejudices. We want someone simple and straightforward to be with the two little girls and to talk to them and play with them and so on. For goodness sake, there’s no need to react like that. You’re not going to do anything wrong. Children are tough as nails. You’ll probably find they’ll be running rings round you if you’re not careful!”

He sighed and ran his hand over his head. “I’m sorry about this, but be assured that if you have any problems where discipline is concerned you will only have to speak to us about it. But they’re good little imps, not like boys. Now boys are quite different, I grant you that, but these two little tots play with their dolls and so on. You won’t have any trouble with them. Lena can’t cope alone, she’s delicate and has to spend quite a bit of time resting. We just want you to feel you’re one of the family. We didn’t want, as I said, any sort of professional, we have all the professionals we need right here in Argentina. One doesn’t want to import professionals. I’m sorry you feel this way.”

Juli looked down at her clenched hands and made herself open them out and relax the muscles of her neck and shoulders. She did not speak because she was afraid that she might burst into tears. Disillusion and an intense dislike for this vigorous man in front of her filled her. It was so obvious that the subtleties of her own concern were something he was quite incapable of understanding, and that Tishy to him was like a calf or a foal, not a future adult human being.

“Finished?” Dereck asked. She nodded and he stood up. “Come on then, and don’t start acting like my sister Marion, all disapproval, compressed lips, and meaningful silences at the drop of a hat.”

Without more ado he marched over to the counter to pay the bill and to have a quick chat with the waiter and his wife. Angrily, Juli picked up her handbag, pulled on her anorak and walked out of the bar to the pick-up. It was locked so she had to wait, staring at the horizontal edge of the world where it touched the sky, powdery and blurred in the distance. She had two options, resign, go back to B.A. and get a job there if she didn’t return to the UK, or accept the situation and do the best she could, washing her hands of the results. In fact , by being so conscious of her responsibilities it was likely that she would be able to help Tishy, at least more than a simple local girl … but perhaps a girl like that, without all the doubts and concern which thinking often created, would in reality be much better for Tishy, acting instinctively, unhampered by a fussy overactive conscience.

Juli sighed. She had fallen in love with the pampas already and was filled with longing to stay, come what may, and get to know this wide and friendly land. The word ‘Destiny’ rose slowly in her mind and the memory of Dino’s words echoed in her thoughts. “Each person is like a melody”. Perhaps the Birnhams needed her ‘melody’, perhaps Destiny had chosen her, since Dereck had decided to get someone from England. Perhaps even, Destiny had nudged Dereck by planting the idea in his mind. Was there no freedom then? Or had she been free to refuse the compelling urge she had felt, once the job had been offered to her? Where had the urge come from anyway? Nothing had been further from her mind before meeting Mrs. Horn, than being a governess to any little girls anywhere. And also … who was that lady with the sausage dog? It was all very confusing.

Standing there in the warm sunshine, Juli sensed strange invisible forces sweeping about her and felt herself to be a mere pawn, pushed about at random. Well, not at random exactly. She had chosen after all. Now it was up to her to fulfil the task which confronted her. It was no use wasting time feeling disillusioned or defrauded. She was here, Destiny or no Destiny, and she was here not out of any machinations on her part. ‘What I have to do is to tackle all these problems firmly, face everything squarely and do the best I can,” she thought. “What I think of Dereck is personal, I mustn’t let it influence my attitude towards this new situation. Oh, here he comes.”

Dereck strode up, opened the pickup door for her and she climbed in and sat quietly, staring straight in front of her, absorbed in her thoughts. He walked round and got in behind the wheel, jabbed the key into the ignition and started the motor.

“So you’re putting me in Coventry, are you?” he snapped aggressively. Juli turned and looked at him with surprise. She saw defiance and shame in his eyes which suddenly made her think if little Bernard.

“No,” she replied. “I’m thinking. Everything is different now. I have to do a lot of thinking. I don’t want to talk. I have nothing to say.”

Dereck bowed his head in a slightly exaggerated manner, accepting her explanation and drove onto the highway. He turned on the radio and they both remained silently immersed in their thoughts as the pickup ate up the kilometres, racing along the endlessly straight paved road which seemed to lead to infinity. Once again Juli felt the future, unknown and full of the unexpected, rushing towards her and all at once she relaxed and opened her heart to it.

“O.K.” she thought. “I accept. But I shall need help.”

Dereck leaned forward and changed the station on the radio because the new programme seemed to be nothing but conversation. All at once Wagner’s music filled the cabin.

“Wagner!” Juli exclaimed with pleasure.

“Do you like it?”

“Yes. I love it!”

Dereck nodded and tuned the radio as Juli gave herself up to the Meistersingers with closed eyes and a deep sense of relief, her upset emotions bathed and calmed. It was almost as if the Future had answered her. He glanced at her curiously. “Strange child,” he thought. “Not a bit like Gavin and Rowena. Plenty of fire there, though, pretty little thing too.”

————————————–

The capital of the Province of La Pampa, Santa Rosa, turned out to be like a sleepy country town. Since he had to go to the bank for an interview, Dereck took Juli to a large, pleasant restaurant for lunch. The tables were covered with spotless white table cloths, a waiter wearing black trousers and a white shirt with a neat, black, bow tie, led them to a table, brought them a basket of assorted breads and biscuits, two gleaming white table napkins and the menu.

“Have a steak,” Dereck suggested. “They’re very good here.”

“O.K., I mean yes, please.” Juli nodded and laughed.

Smiling, Dereck ordered steak, fried potatoes and salad, as well as a carafe of red wine for them both. “Have you forgiven us?” he asked quizzically.

Juli looked at him in silence, her expression serious. At last she replied, “No, not really. But perhaps when I know Tishy I will understand.”

“That’s the girl. I realize it must seem to you very wrong not to have advised you before-hand, but there was so much to be explained, which cannot be done by letter. I made clear to Florrie exactly the sort of person I wanted … we wanted … and I believe she made a very fair choice. Children are quite sensitive to other people’s feelings, so you had to be someone who really liked small children, but at the same time with plenty of spirit, self confidence, adaptability and the ability to be creative, using whatever was at hand for the purpose.”

“You didn’t ask for much, did you?” Juli remarked, a little ironically. Dereck laughed and continued. “As I told you, Tishy is very shy and Marina is the only one who seems to understand her. She refuses to talk but she understands everything that is said to her. She has had numerous tests, neurological, physiological, you name it, and the results showed that there is no physical reason for her difficulty, so we have to put it down to her being a slow starter and to having been spoken to in two languages all the time. So now we have settled for English. Just treat her as you do your small brother and sister and you’ll have no trouble. Anyway, Marina will be able to interpret for you if you need her. It’s quite incredible how she understands her little sister.”

“Doesn’t Marina have problems?”

“No, thank God. She’s a perfectly straightforward little kid … full of beans. She’s really looking forward to meeting you. Lena hasn’t been too well with this new baby and Marina is longing for more energetic entertainment.”

The waiter arrived with enormous steaks, brown and sizzling, the marks of the grill burned into them, each on their separate plate. The aroma of grilled meat made Juli realize how hungry she was. She watched him place a large dish of crispy fried potatoes and a bowl of salad on the table between them and serve the red wine with a flourish.

“Good, good,” Dereck said enthusiastically, picking up his knife and fork. “I’ve been looking forward to this meal.”

Juli spread her napkin carefully on her lap thinking of Ann and the price of meat in England. These two steaks would probably be a week’s supply in Ann’s household, and here she was, about to demolish three days’ servings for two in one meal! Hah! That was the life; wine and steak for lunch, six hundred kilometres since breakfast and another hundred or so to go before tea. And far away to the west were the Andes mountains and even further away to the North, Lake Titicaca, Machu Pichu and the realm of the Incas. What if Tishy didn’t talk? Was it so very serious after all that she hadn’t been warned about it before-hand?

They ate baked apples with whipped cream for dessert, and topped the meal off with coffee.

“Do you smoke?” Dereck asked holding out a packet of cigarettes. Juli shook her head

“No thanks.”

“Ah, good,” he smiled. “That will be a good example for Lena. She smokes a lot unfortunately”

While Dereck was at the bank, Juli explored the streets and the shops, which were overflowing with merchandise, a lot of it imported. She worked out the exchange and spent an amusing half hour pricing everything in pounds, but she found the prices extremely high.

“How expensive everything is,” she said to Dereck when they were in the pickup once more heading out of town, bound for Victorica.

“True, but for the first time in years it’s cheap to travel and buy things abroad, the Argentines are taking full advantage,” Dereck replied. “The whole population seems to have been bitten by the bug. It’s due to the exchange, the peso is highly overvalued, which is not good for the country but gives the Argentines the possibility of going abroad and widening their cultural horizons. It won’t last … can’t … and when they do devalue the peso it will be a tremendous drop. At this moment it’s dreadful for exports. Our merchandise, meat, wool and grains are very expensive, one wonders why this clinging to a value which is utterly fictitious seems so necessary to the Economy Team. God knows.”

The landscape had changed perceptibly. The countryside had become rolling and swept away to the horizon in a series of undulating folds. It was also drier and the soil had become sandy. Yellow ochre in all its shades and tones was the predominant colour, and here and there by the road side a sand dune appeared, partially covered by a few strands of grass which had started to grow over it. The trees, for the most part algarrobos and caldenes, had the fine feathery leaves characteristic of dry climates, and the pampas grasses, silvery and fine at their tips, gave the impression of waves of silver streaming away from the road.

After a while the trees became denser, finally forming thick spiny woods on either side of the road. Although here and there tall majestic old caldenes raised their feathery heads above their surrounding cousins, on the whole the trees were low and fan shaped, their branches, which had spines and were very twisted, trailing their tips on the ground. Dereck explained that the caldén trees produced a type of bean seed-pods which the cattle ate with relish and which were very nourishing.

It’s very dry this year,” he said. “Let’s hope it rains soon. It’s pretty here in spring, lots of wild flowers.”

They by-passed Victorica and drove on through ever drier and rougher country. The loneliness of the earth road with the endless scrub and spiny woods on either side caught Juli at the pit of her stomach. Somehow she had not imagined such a grey-green dust-coloured world; such an immense loneliness; such overall sameness. Nothing in Europe could have prepared her for the Pampa Seca or Dry Pampa, not even the surroundings of Alicante in Spain.

“Here we are,” Dereck grinned, slowing the pickup and turning left towards a white gate with ‘Los Alamos’ painted on it in black. “This is where your work starts madam. Passengers over six and under eighty open and shut the gates in the Pampa.”

“Sure,” juli said, jumping down onto the road. A small cloud of dust rose about her feet. She walked over to the gate hoping that she would be able to open it easily. A metal hoop attached to the top of it was hooked over a support post. She worked it up off the post and flapped it back onto the gate which was heavy and immediately swung open catching her by surprise, so that for a moment, before she let it go, she nearly lost her balance and fell. Aware that Dereck had not warned her on purpose she remained quite still, waiting for him to drive through, then she pushed the gate to and hooked the loop over the post once more.

“Any more gates?” she asked once she was back in the pickup.

“Just cattle guards from now on,” he said, adding. “Well, this is Los Alamos, welcome.”

Juli gave him a sidelong glance and smiled, bowing her head slightly. They drove along a narrow dirt track which wound through the closely growing trees. Small groups of Hereford cattle turned their gentle white faces and watched them pass, their red flanks and white bellies making an attractive contrast to the soft green back-drop of the trees.

This gave way abruptly to a de-forested area of neatly fenced fields in the middle of which stood the homestead, surrounded by eucalyptus and other trees. The track curved slightly and on the left Juli could see corrugated iron sheds, whitewashed workers’ cottages with thatched roofs and wide verandas, as well as various barns. They drove past a group of beautiful old trees of many different varieties and over a cattle-guard onto a driveway which led up to the house. This was a long, low, one-story building with a galvanized iron roof painted red, and a long front porch. The drive swept round a circular patch of lawn in front of the porch. The walls were partly covered with creepers and a climbing rose tree, to the right a tall hedge separated the front garden from the kitchen quarters. Three big dogs of mixed origin, but with a lot of Labrador in them, appeared, barking loudly and wagging their tails furiously at the sight of Dereck and the pickup.

“Dobbie, Swinger and Digby,” Dereck introduced them. “Swinger and Digby are Dobie’s sons by different litters.” He turned and yelled at them to shut up just as a boy of about sixteen ran up. His smooth brown face was topped by a mass of thick curly black hair. Two smiling brown faced women followed closely behind him.

The front door opened and Lena appeared. She was tall and fair, and, despite her pregnancy, extremely elegant in a natural coloured wool dress which fell in soft folds from a deep yoke. She wore moccasins and nylon stockings, her long hair was caught up in a pony tail. Juli, who had been expecting someone in jeans and a smock of some sort found it very hard not to stare at her with an open mouth. Lena was the most unexpected sight that she had had up to that moment, and she was completely taken aback.

“Lena,” Dereck greeted her joyfully, giving her a close hug . “How are you dear? Here’s Juli Lane at last She arrived well and Peter went to fetch her at Ezeiza. Juli, meet my wife, Lena.”

Juli climbed the three steps up to the porch and shook Lena’s outstretched hand which she noticed was long and narrow with beautifully painted nails. Lena’s handshake was somewhat limp and her expression despite her smile of welcome, was a little guarded.

“How do you do,” she said politely. “Welcome to Los Alamos, we have all been looking forward to meeting you.”

“Very well thank you,” Juli replied, equally polite.

“Please come in,” Lena said turning and leading the way into the hall while Dereck and the boy unloaded the luggage from the pickup. The hall was a long and narrow room running across the whole width of the house. Doors lead off to the left and right, there were a couple of tables, a clothes horse, several pictures and a grandfather clock. A picture window at the far end opened onto a wide veranda, beyond which could be seen a lawn. Lena led the way into the living room on the right which was enormous. Three more picture windows also opened onto the veranda, a lively fire burned in a large open fireplace, with a sofa and various armchairs grouped round it. The big dining room table and chairs, the sideboard, as well as book cases, a piano, occasional tables, lamps and a rocking chair seemed quite insignificant in such acres of space. The wooden floor was highly polished, the pictures on the walls were varied but beautiful, the carpets discreet and thick. It was an attractive room but not a very cosy one.

“We always eat here at mid-day,” Lena said nodding towards the dining table. “But Dereck and I have a sitting room next door to our bedroom on the other side of the hall which is much cosier and we usually have our supper there. It also has a fire place so it’s nice and warm. This is such a huge room, one gets lost in it, but when there is an I.N.T.A. meeting or we give a party, then of course it comes in very useful.”

“Yes of course,” Juli nodded, wondering what I.N.T.A. meant. “Do you give lots of parties?”

“Dereck is very social, but we haven’t given a really big party for quite a long time, what with this pregnancy and so on. I get tired very easily I find, and the doctor said I must rest as much as possible.”

Dereck breezed in carrying his briefcase and various parcels. “Where are the kids?” he asked, a question Juli had been asking silently since they had arrived.

“Marta took them over to Herminia’s to play there while she….”

Dereck expression darkened and he said angrily, “I’ve told you any number of times I don’t want Marina and Tishy playing with Herminia’s children. Really Lena … ”

Juli waited for Lena to react, but she didn’t seem at all fayed by Dereck’s attitude.

“Marta got back from her week end off at eleven this morning. I expected her yesterday so you can imagine the rush getting the room ready and cleaned for Juli. She can’t be expected to do that and look after the children and I really didn’t feel well enough. I had a very bad night last night.”

Dereck was all concern at once. “What was the matter?” he asked.

“My silly back, that’s all. I felt simply wonderful while I was expecting Marina and Tishy,” Lena explained to Juli. “But this pregnancy has been such a trial. Perhaps it will be a boy, I do hope so.”

Derck said decisively. “Take Juli too her room, dear. I’ll go and fetch the children. How are you feeling now my love, better?”

“Much now that you’re back,” Lena smiled and he left the room quickly. She was not a pretty woman but her careful make-up and the elegance with which she moved gave her an air of distinction which made it immaterial whether she was pretty or not.

“Please come this way,” she murmured and walked towards a door beyond the dining room table at the far end of the room. “Dereck is never tired,” she said a little faintly. “He’s amazing, Herminia is the wife of our foreman. Of course her children are rather rough, five of them, they’re all about the same age and I feel it’s good for Marina to be with other children apart from Tishy, but Dereck just can’t see it. Did Dereck … mention Tishy to you?”

“Yes”

“Lena glanced at Juli sharply. “We have taken her to all the specialists,” she said . “And they say Tishy is just a slow starter. Dereck is certain that if we use just one language with her all the time, you know, that will help her to start talking. It’s such a worry, she’s three already. I lie awake thinking about her. I keep wondering … Luckily Marina never had any of these problems. I would have trembled to have another child, but Dereck would so love to have a boy, too. This pregnancy has been so different that I’m hoping for his sake that it will be a little boy this time.”

She opened the door and they walked into a long, well lit passage, and then, to the right, next to the sitting room, into what was obviously the nursery. “You will be sleeping here with Marina and Tishy,” she said. “We talked it over with Dereck and decided it was the most convenient arrangement.”

Juli walked into the room with a sense of shock. It had not occurred to her, in such a large rambling house, that she would not have a bedroom of her own.

“I had this screen put to separate your bed from the rest of the room,” Lena went on, walking over to the screen which was covered with a beautifully embroidered tapestry of Chinese designs. Juli looked round the room which was, in fact. surprisingly large. A double door with glass in the upper half of it looked out onto the veranda and the lawn beyond. There was a fire place with a sofa in front of it, a pretty gate-legged table with three chairs. A desk with a chair, bookcases, and shelves full of toys The children’s beds took up one corner of the room by a very large walk-in cupboard. The screen created a little alcove between the far side of the cupboard and the wall where her bed and a night-table had been placed.

She stood beside Lena by the screen and studied her ‘corner’ next to the door onto the veranda. It had a brass bed with a faded coverlet matching the curtains and the sofa cover and an old-fashioned night table, tall and narrow with a drawer, below it a little door, and a marble top with a bronze lamp on it. The alcove was in fact more spacious and secluded than Juli had expected. Her suitcases and hand luggage had been neatly stacked at the foot of her bed.

Lena, who had noticed Juli’s reaction, said in a conciliatory tone, “The passage joins the house to the guest bedrooms which were once a separate building. It was a crazy arrangement because one froze in winter on one’s way to bed at night and if it rained, which isn’t such a problem in this part of the country, but it does sometimes rain torrentially, one got wet. I got Dereck to extend the passage and join the two buildings. But the guest wing, if one can call it that, is seldom used and awfully cold in winter. It’s also a long way off if the children call at night and so on. All in all I think you will find it better sleeping here where the fire is burning all day, and I too will feel happier as we sleep at the other end of the house, and wouldn’t hear a thing either if the children should wake up and need us.”

Juli nodded. “I understand,” she said. “I’ve never been in such a big house before, it takes quite a bit of getting used to.”

“Come and I’ll show you the bathroom,” Lena said in a relieved tone. “It’s next door.”

“Hey, this bathroom is a museum piece,” Juli exclaimed delightedly as she followed Lena into the all-white high-ceilinged bathroom. It was dominated by a majestic iron bath tub resting on ornate little feet, and lit by a tall window with wooden shutters on the inside. The old-fashioned pull-chain flush toilet was decorated with a picture of a spray of flowers in its bowl, the hand basin was large and the mirror above it small. A chest of drawers and a wooden chair, both painted white, made up the rest of the furnishings.

“…and these are your towels,” Lena was explaining when Juli realized that she was still talking. “The best time for you to take a bath would be just after lunch when the water is nice and hot. We have our baths at night and the children before supper.”

Juli nodded vaguely, still engrossed by the fixtures in the bathroom.

“Well,” Lena said. “That’s all then. I hope you won’t find it all too strange. I expect it’ll take some getting used to after an apartment in London. We’ll have tea now. I’ll go and tell Marta she can serve. We’ll have it in the living room today I think, it’ll be easier. If there is anything you need or that I have forgotten, please, let me know.”

They returned to the nursery where, with a smile and a little nod she left and Juli stood looking round, letting herself feel her way into the room. It had a subtly different atmosphere to the living room, not because of the toys and the children’s belongings scattered about, but due to something deeper, something in the room itself. One felt that here something of the history of Los Alamos pulsed.

She opened the huge cupboard and looked in. A neon light went on automatically, lighting it up. There were shelves and hanging space on the left mostly occupied by the children’s clothes, a mirror opposite the door and more shelves on the right, which were entirely filled with boxes and parcels neatly labelled.

“Not much room for me here,” July thought wryly. “I’ll have to do a bit of re-organizing to fit all my stuff in here too.”

She walked slowly round to her bed feeling young and insecure. How different reality always was to the fantasies conjured up in one’s imagination. What had she expected? She didn’t know, only that she had not expected anything quite like this. All of a sudden she was overpowered by her eight-year-old self which had remained tucked away somewhere inside her. She sat on the bed and bounced on it, punched the pillow, lay down, sat up, turned on the brass lamp, inspected the drawer of the night-table and found an enormous flowered china chamber pot when she opened the little door below it. “I must take a photo of this,” she thought gleefully, once she had got over the initial shock of finding it. “Ann will never believe me.”

She went over to the sofa and sat on it, tried out the rocking chair, poked the fire with the brass-handled poker, and added two little logs with a proprietary air, then she walked out onto the veranda and looked about her. A wooden trellis divided her part of it from that which was in front of the living room, where there were ferns and plants in pots,, easy chairs and a couple of tables. On the nursery side there was a wooden bench beside the door, a large box full of firewood next to the trellis and a sand box. It looked bare and pretty forlorn.

“My part,” Juli thought. “Well, it’s bleak, but at least no one will mind if I add a few plants or something, as there is nothing to change here.”

In her imagination she began to add several flowering geraniums and a climbing rose. A chilly wind reminded her that it was winter and she returned to the nursery and stood by the fire warming herself, thinking of her father’s passion for flowering plants. His garden was really lovely, for he seemed to have flowers blooming all through the year. Paula was a keen gardener too. It was this mutual interest which was one of their closest ties apart from the children. They loved visiting gardens on weekends and on their holidays and were always gloating over one or other cutting which had ‘taken’ and which they were protecting from every possible hazard.

Hearing Dereck’s voice in the living room, Juli was suddenly filled with nerves, she darted back into her alcove and began to unpack her overnight bag feverishly. Dereck walked into the nursery calling out jovially. “Juli, here we are, come and meet the babes.”

Taking a deep breath she walked into the room. Dereck had Marina by the hand and was carrying Tishy. Marina was a stocky, fair-haired little girl who looked very like Dereck. All Juli could see of Tishy were red gum-boots a blue anorak and a soft halo of ash-blond hair, for the little girl had her face pressed against her father’s neck.

“This is Juli, go and say hello now,” Dereck commanded setting Tishy on the floor.. Marina ran up to Juli with a wide happy smile and lifted her cheek for a kiss, but Tishy, her hear hanging, rushed over to her bed and threw herself onto it. She curled up into a tight little ball facing the wall and began to suck her thumb.

“Come Tishy,” Dereck called. “Come and give Juli a kiss.”

“Don’t rush her Dereck,” Juli said as she bent to give Marina a kiss. “Just leave her to get used to me at her own speed. I prefer it that way.”

Dereck, shrugged. “As you wish,” he said with a smile. “Perhaps it would be better that way. We’re going to have tea now so come along as soon as you can. We’re all going to have tea together today, eh, Marina?”

Marina nodded emphatically. She was watching Juli with wide-eyed interest for she had been told that Juli could not speak or even understand Spanish and that she would have to talk only in English to her. She wondered if this could possibly be true.

Dereck grinned broadly, delighted to see his little daughter standing so trustfully beside her new governess, and Juli so obviously in charge of the whole situation. Once he had left, Juli helped Marina take off her gum-boots and her anorak and sent her to the bathroom to wash her hands.

“You too,” Marina said loudly, trying out her English. She usually spoke in Spanish, even to her parents, despite the fact that she understood all they said to her. Juli smiled and accompanied her to the bathroom where they washed their hands together. Tishy remained motionless on her bed. Juli decided to leave her alone, apart from gently taking off her red boots.

Marina, her initial awe having worn off, began to run round the room saying, “This is my doll, this is my bed, this is my chair…” Very loudly.

“And where is your hair-brush?” Juli asked. Marina ran to a chest of drawers at the end of Tishy’s bed and produced one proudly. “My hairbrush,” she said firmly.

Juli brushed Marina’s hair till it shone and then went to find hers and brushed her own hair while Marina looked on in fascinated silence. “…Forty seven, forty eight, forty nine, fifty,” she counted. “Fifty brushes to make my hair shine.”
Marina laughed and repeated, “Fifty brushes to make my hair shine.” She rushed over to the sofa, grabbed her doll and began to brush her hair with violently excited movements.” “Just like her Dad,” Juli thought and said aloud, “Let’s go and have tea now, are you coming Tishy?”

Tishy remained immobile, her face covered by her hair. Juli left her and taking Marina’s hand they walked into the living room. Lena was sitting at the table smoking and leafing through a magazine which Dereck had brought her. She looked up and asked, “Where’s Tishy?”

“Lying on her bed, getting used to the idea of my presence,” Juli replied.

“She must come and have her tea.”

“Does she have to?”

“Of course.”

Juli felt like giving any irritated retort but thought better of it. Unwillingly she turned and went back to the nursery. “Come on Tishy,” she said gently. “Mummy says come to tea!”

She unzipped the child’s anorak and worked it off the inert little body, noting as she did so how tiny and fragile it seemed in comparison to Marina’s. Finding a pair of slippers she pushed Tishy’s feet into them, stood her up, brushed her hair with Marina’s brush and then steered her towards the living room. Tishy kept her chin tucked against her chest and continued to suck her thumb throughout the whole process so that Juli was unable to get a good look at her face and see what she really looked like. Taking her hand she led her to the table and sat her in the high chair beside Dereck who had just come in, changed for tea. Marina was relating a long and involved adventure in excited Spanish so he interrupted her gently.

“Talk in English, Marina, Juli doesn’t understand Spanish you know.”

Marina subsided into frustrated silence and Lena, pouring out the tea, said, “”What do you think of Argentina, Juli?”

Juli wondered if she really wanted to know or if it was just a sort of ritual question, asked to fill an awkward silence and to seem polite.

“I find the sky so huge, I never realized it could be so big,” she replied with a disarming smile.

Lena looked at her with a surprised expression. “I never thought of that,” she said. “I suppose it is because it is so flat here.”

Juli nodded. “And also the tremendous feeling of space, so few people, villages, you know. I suppose Russia and Australia must seem the same, but I’ve never been there.”

“I hope you won’t feel too lonely here,” Lena murmured and Dereck, who was cutting up a slice of cake for Tishy said briskly, “I’m pretty certain that Marina and Tishy will keep you fully occupied, and we’re not really so far away from civilization actually, however unpopulated it may seem around these parts. We must have an asado, I mean a barbecue, Lena. It’s about time we did a bit of entertaining and to introduce Juli to our neighbours.”

Jui noticed Lena’s carefully concealed horror, and that she was looking at Tishy. “She doesn’t want people to see Tishy,” she thought. “She’s ashamed of her. I wonder how she’ll handle this, I bet we don’t have the party.”

Before Dereck could begin to gather momentum and develop the idea of the barbeque party, Juli said, “Please, could you tell me a little what the daily routine is?”

“Yes, of course,” Lena replied quickly, and launched into a detailed account of the daily round. “Breakfast is at eight, the maid, Marta, will take it to the nursery. I usually have mine in bed and Dereck get’s up early so it will be easier that way I think. Then lunch is a twelve thirty sharp here in the living room. Tea will depend a little on how I feel, as I have to rest so much and supper in the nursery at seven thirty. In winter the children have their bath at seven and bedtime is at about eight, eight thirty. What you do in between those times will be up to you. I didn’t want to make any definite programme because I thought you would prefer to make up your own.”

Juli digested the information silently, noting that in reality she was going to have precious little adult companionship and asked, “Can we go riding?”

“Er … no,” Lena said as Dereck replied at the same instant,” Of course, my dear. I’m delighted to hear that you are keen on riding!”

“Dereck …” Len exclaimed “The children …”

“I know how nervous you are where horses are concerned, dear, but it’s really time they should start to learn.”

“They are still far too young to go riding !” Lena retorted angrily.

Marina who had been following all the conversation intently cried out excitedly, “Yes
yes, Daddy, yes. Quiero un pony. I want a pony-y-y-y.”

“Quiet, Marina,” Dereck snapped sternly and glared at Lena. “The children are just the right age to start learning to ride,” he said firmly, and a little too loudly. “You should have seen Gavin and Rowena at their age. I shall look out for a pony for Marina and there’s a very gentle mare called Mariposa, which means Butterfly, which you can ride, Juli. That’s settled then, and I’m very pleased. Any child brought up in the camp should know how to ride almost from birth!”

“I don’t agree at all,” Lena said sharply. “The girls are both too small. Look at Tishy. What do you expect her to do on a horse? I don’t want to run the risk. They’ll have all the time in the world to learn when they’re older.”

“Oh, for goodness sake, Lena, I’ve explained to you any number of times that the sooner you get a child onto a horse the less likely anything will ever happen. They have no fear and learn to become pretty well one with the animal and ride well instinctively. Juli can take Tishy in front of her if it comes to that, anyway.”

Lena’s eyes blazed as she turned to Juli, trembling with anger. “And when did you learn to ride?” she demanded.

“There was a riding school near our home when I was a little girl,” Juli replied. “ My Dad decided it would be a pity not to take advantage of the fact and sent my sister and me for lessons for several years. My mother was always pretty nervous but we loved it and I have always been glad that I learned when I was small.”

“You see,” Dereck said triumphantly.

Lena shook her head. “I still don’t agree,” she snapped. “They’ve got all the garden to run about in, why rush them onto the back of a horse before they can even walk properly?”

“I can walk properly,” Marina cried and Juli, feeling that it was time to make a graceful retreat, pushed back her chair and stood up.

“I think I’ll go and unpack,” she said. “Do you want Marina to stay here with you for the moment?”

“No, no,” Dereck said at once. “Off you go and help Juli, Marina.”

Juli lifted Tishy out of her chair and carried her to the nursery behind Marina who had run ahead noisily, banging the doors open as she did so. Once there Juli sat down on the sofa and stared into the fire. Tishy, feather-light, remained sitting quietly on her lap, her head still hanging, and her thumb still clamped into her mouth. She had eaten only a tiny slice of cake and drunk half a mug of milky tea through a straw, but had not raised her head once.

“She’s not going to stop me from riding,” Juli said to herself. “I’m going to ask Dereck for a free hour a day to be able to go for a proper ride. I’m not a slave, dash it. Lena wants me to be stuck with the kids twenty four hours a day. That’s crazy! And it’s not fair either. The least they can do is let me have is an hour or an hour and a half free to go riding and explore the farm. It’s the very least they can do!”

“Juli,” Marina interrupted her train of thought. “I want unpack.”

“O.K.” Juli replied cheerfully, settling Tishy on the sofa. “First we’ll make room in the cupboard for my things and then we’ll unpack. Come on.”

After rearranging the children’s clothes and several of the parcels in the cupboard she unpacked slowly so that Marina could inspect everything. She unearthed her own teddy-bear and said, “This is Portly, Marina, do you think Tishy would like to play with him?”

“Yes,” Marina exclaimed and hurried over to the sofa importantly to give Portly to her sister.

They carried the clothes into the cupboard and began to lay them tidily on the shelves. After a little while Tishy sidled into the small space inside the cupboard and crouched down, raising her head a fraction in order to be able to see better.

“Hello Tishy,” Juli said gently but Tishy made no reply.

Once finished Juli put away the suitcases on a high shelf and picked up the small pile of books and games she had brought from England. She took them to the table, chose a story and sat down once again. Marina flung herself excitedly beside her while Tishy followed timorously and leaned against the far end of the sofa. Despite being so small and fragile she walked clumsily, without exerting any weight on her heels and Juli kept wanting to pick her up and carry her, for she did not seem an earth creature, but rather as if a puff of wind or a cloud had decided to turn itself into the form of a child for a while. She opened the book and began to read slowly and clearly, making a mental note while she read to ask for a bridge lamp as the lamp hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room was not very adequate and not at all cosy,

That night, lying in bed staring at the flickering shadows cast by the fire on the ceiling she reviewed her long day, and felt again the palpable yet invisible encircling wall which kept the ‘outside’ world at bay and protected the cultured, suburban world within, with its books and magazines, the piano, the record player, and the uniformed maid and cook.

She thought of the Carlie family. They seemed very far away and she had only left them that morning! She wondered if the new Peter would be able to make his peace with his mother; if Dino and Tony would write as they had promised to do; if her father was missing her. She asked herself if she would be able to get on well with Lena and if, after all, she would get lonely and want to leave Los Alamos.

Her last thoughts, before dropping off to sleep drifted round the urgent necessity of learning to speak Spanish without the little girls finding out. She simply could not spend any more time without being able to communicate with ninety percent of the people who surrounded her.

————————————-

2 thoughts on “Under Another Sky 4

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