[A wealthy family is having a garden party. Laura, one of the daughters, is enjoying the excitement of supervising the men who are putting up the marquee. Suddenly, she learns that a young workman who lives in the poor cottages just below her big house has just been killed in a freak accident. Her brother Laurie is the only one who understands how she feels.]
said, horrified, "however are we going to stop everything?"
"Stop everything, Laura!" cried Jose in astonishment. "What do
"Stop the garden-party, of course." Why did Jose pretend?
But Jose was still more amazed. "Stop the garden-party? My
dear Laura, don't be so absurd. Of course we can't do anything of
the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don't be so extravagant."
"But we can't possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just
outside the front gate."
That really was extravagant, for the little cottages were in a lane
to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the
house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near.
They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to
be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings
painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was
nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very
smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little
rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that
uncurled from the Sheridans' chimneys. Washerwomen lived in
the lane and sweeps and a cobbler, and a man whose house-front
was studded all over with minute bird-cages. Children swarmed.
When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot
there because of the revolting language and of what they might
catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their
prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid.
They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere;
one must see everything. So through they went.
"And just think of what the band would sound like to that poor
woman," said Laura.
"Oh, Laura!" Jose began to be seriously annoyed. "If you're
going to stop a band playing every time someone has an accident,
you'll lead a very strenuous life. I'm every bit as sorry about it as
you. I feel just as sympathetic." Her eyes hardened. She looked at
her sister just as she used to when they were little and fighting
together. "You won't bring a drunken workman back to life by
being sentimental," she said softly.
"Drunk! Who said he was drunk?" Laura turned furiously on
Jose. She said just as they had used to say on those occasions, "I'm
going straight up to tell mother."
"Do, dear," cooed Jose.
"Mother, can I come into your room?" Laura turned the big
"Of course, child. Why, what's the matter? What's given you
such a colour?" And Mrs. Sheridan turned round from her
dressing-table. She was trying on a new hat.
"Mother, a man's been killed," began Laura.
"Not in the garden?" interrupted her mother.
"Oh, what a fright you gave me!" Mrs. Sheridan sighed with
relief, and took off the big hat and held it on her knees.
"But listen, mother," said Laura. Breathless, half-choking, she
told the dreadful story. "Of course, we can't have our party, can
we?" she pleaded. "The band and everybody arriving. They'd hear
us, mother; they're nearly neighbours!"
To Laura's astonishment her mother behaved just like Jose; it
was harder to bear because she seemed amused. She refused to
take Laura seriously.
"But, dear child, use your common sense. It's only by accident
we've heard of it. If someone had died there normally–and I can't
understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes-we
should still be having our party, shouldn't we?"
Laura had to say "yes" to that, but she felt it was all wrong. She
sat down on her mother's sofa and pinched the cushion frill.
"Mother, isn't it terribly heartless of us?" she asked.
"Darling!" Mrs. Sheridan got up and came over to her, carrying
the hat. Before Laura could stop her she had popped it on. "My
child!" said her mother, "the hat is yours. It's made for you.
much too young for me. I have never seen you look such a picture.
Look at yourself!" And she held up her hand-mirror.
"But, mother," Laura began again. She couldn't look at herself;
she turned aside.
This time Mrs. Sheridan lost patience just as Jose had done.
"You are being very absurd, Laura," she said coldly. "People like
that don't expect sacrifices from us. And it's not very sympathetic
to spoil everybody's enjoyment as you're doing now."
"I don't understand," said Laura, and she walked quickly out of
the room into her own bedroom. There, quite by chance, the first
thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat
trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon. Never
had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she
thought. And now she hoped her mother was right. Am I being
extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she
had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children,
and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed
blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I'll remember it
again after the party's over, she decided. And somehow that
seemed quite the best plan. . . .
Laurie arrived and hailed them on his way to dress. At the sight
of him Laura remembered the accident again. She wanted to tell
him. If Laurie agreed with the others, then it was bound to be all
right. And she followed him into the hall.
"Hallo!" he was half-way upstairs, but when he turned round
and saw Laura he suddenly puffed out his cheeks and goggled his
eyes at her. "My word, Laura! You do look stunning," said Laurie.
"What an absolutely topping hat!"
Laura said faintly "Is it?" and smiled up at Laurie, and didn't tell
him after all.
[The party is a great success.]
"All over, all over, thank heaven," said Mrs. Sheridan. "Round up
the others, Laura. Let's go and have some fresh coffee. I'm
exhausted. Yes, it's been very successful. But oh, these parties,
these parties! Why will you children insist on giving parties!" And
they all of them sat down in the deserted marquee.
"Have a sandwich, daddy dear. I wrote the flag."
"Thanks." Mr. Sheridan took a bite and the sandwich was gone.
He took another. "I suppose you didn't hear of a beastly accident
that happened today?" he said.
"My dear," said Mrs. Sheridan, holding up her
hand, "we did. It
nearly ruined the party. Laura insisted we should put it off."
"Oh, mother!" Laura didn't want to be teased about it.
"It was a horrible affair all the same," said Mr. Sheridan. "The
chap was married too. Lived just below in the lane, and leaves a
wife and half a dozen kiddies, so they say."
An awkward little silence fell. Mrs. Sheridan fidgeted with her
cup. Really, it was very tactless of father. . . .
Suddenly she looked up. There on the table were all those
sandwiches, cakes, puffs, all un-eaten, all going to be wasted. She
had one of her brilliant ideas.
"I know," she said. "Let's make up a basket. Let's send that poor
creature some of this perfectly good food. At any rate, it will be
the greatest treat for the children. Don't you agree? And she's sure
to have neighbours calling in and so on. What a point to have it all
ready prepared. Laura!" She jumped up. "Get me the big basket
out of the stairs cupboard."
"But, mother, do you really think it's a good idea?" said Laura.
Again, how curious, she seemed to be different from them all.
To take scraps from their party. Would the poor woman really
"Of course! What's the matter with you to-day? An hour or two
ago you were insisting on us being sympathetic, and now–"
Oh well! Laura ran for the basket. It was filled, it was heaped by
"Take it yourself, darling," said she. "Run down just as you are.
No, wait, take the arum lilies too. People of that class are so
impressed by arum lilies."
"The stems will ruin her lace frock," said practical Jose.
So they would. Just in time. "Only the basket, then. And,
Laura!"–her mother followed her out of the marquee–"don't on
No, better not put such ideas into the child's head! "Nothing!
It was just growing dusky as Laura shut their garden gates. A
big dog ran by like a shadow. The road gleamed white, and down
below in the hollow the little cottages were in deep shade. How
quiet it seemed after the afternoon. Here she was going down the
hill to somewhere where a man lay dead, and she couldn't realize
it. Why couldn't she? She stopped a minute. And it seemed to her
that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed
grass were somehow inside her. She had no room for anything
else. How strange! She looked up at the pale sky, and all she
thought was, "Yes, it was the most successful party."
Now the broad road was crossed. The lane began, smoky and
dark. Women in shawls and men's tweed caps hurried by. Men
hung over the palings; the children played in the doorways. A low
hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there
was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crab-like, moved across the
window. Laura bent her head and hurried on. She wished now she
had put on a coat. How her frock shone! And the big hat with the
velvet streamer–if only it was another hat! Were the people
looking at her? They must be. It was a mistake to have come; she
knew all along it was a mistake. Should she go back even now?
No, too late. This was the house. It must be. A dark knot of
people stood outside. Beside the gate an old, old woman with a
crutch sat in a chair, watching. She had her feet on a newspaper.
The voices stopped as Laura drew near. The group parted. It was
as though she was expected, as though they had known she was
Laura was terribly nervous. Tossing the velvet ribbon over her
shoulder, she said to a woman standing by, "Is this Mrs. Scott's
house?" and the woman, smiling queerly, said, "It is, my lass."
Oh, to be away from this! She actually said, "Help me, God," as she
walked up the tiny path and knocked. To be away from those
staring eyes, or be covered up in anything, one of those women's
shawls even. I'll just leave the basket and go, she decided. I shan't
even wait for it to be emptied.
Then the door opened. A little woman in black showed in the
Laura said, "Are you Mrs. Scott?" But to her horror the woman
answered, "Walk in, please, miss," and she was shut in the passage.
"No," said Laura, "I don't want to come in. I only want to leave
this basket. Mother sent–"
The little woman in the gloomy passage seemed not to have
heard her. "Step this way, please, miss," she said in an oily voice,
and Laura followed her.
She found herself in a wretched little low kitchen, lighted by a
smoky lamp. There was a woman sitting before the fire.
"Em," said the little creature who had let her in. "Em! It's a young
lady." She turned to Laura. She said meaningly, "I'm 'er sister,
miss. You'll excuse 'er, won't you?"
"Oh, but of course!" said Laura. "Please, please don't disturb
her. I–I only want to leave–"
But at that moment the woman at the fire turned round. Her
face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked
terrible. She seemed as though she couldn't understand why Laura
was there. What did it mean? Why was this stranger standing in
the kitchen with a basket? What was it all about? And the poor
face puckered up again.
"All right, my dear," said the other. "I'll thenk the young lady."
And again she began, "You'll excuse her, miss,
I'm sure," and
her face, swollen too, tried an oily smile.
Laura only wanted to get out, to get away. She was back in the
passage. The door opened. She walked straight through into the
bedroom where the dead man was lying.
"You'd like a look at 'im, wouldn't you?" said Em's sister, and
she brushed past Laura over to the bed. "Don't be afraid, my
lass,"–and now her voice sounded fond and sly, and fondly she
drew down the sheet–" 'e looks a picture. There's nothing to
show. Come along, my dear."
There lay a young man, fast asleep–sleeping so soundly, so
deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote,
so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His
head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind
under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did
garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was
far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they
were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had
come to the lane. Happy . . . happy . . . All is well, said that
sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn't go out of the
room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud
"Forgive my hat," she said.
And this time she didn't wait for Em's sister. She found her way
out of the door, down the path, past all those dark people. At the
corner of the lane she met Laurie.
He stepped out of the shadow. "Is that you, Laura?"
"Mother was getting anxious. Was it all right?"
"Yes, quite. Oh, Laurie!" She took his arm, she pressed up
"I say, you're not crying, are you?" asked her brother.
Laura shook her head. She was.
Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. "Don't cry," he said in
his warm, loving voice. "Was it awful?"
"No," sobbed Laura. "It was simply marvellous. But Laurie–" She stopped, she looked at her brother. "Isn't life," she stammered,
"isn't life–" But what life was she couldn't explain. No matter. He
[Jill Ker Conway was raised on Coorain, an Australian ranch. In a time of terrible drought, her father drowned under circumstances that made her suspect he had killed himself. Her family later moved to Sydney. She is now 15. A policeman comes in the middle of the night to tell that her adored older brother Bob, 21, has been killed in a car crash.]
After he left, I was overcome by the need to do my grieving privately for a while.
I wanted to sit alone and take it in. I also knew it would be a long time before my mother slept peacefully again, and thought she would need her rest for what was awaiting her tomorrow. I sat in the dark in the living room, thinking very clearly. This time I knew no effort at committing a loved face or voice to memory could arrest the passage of time. There would be a time when I couldn't recall his voice and his laugh at will. I might live on a large part of my life without the laughter and the joy he brought into it. As I took in the facts and imagined the battered thatch of golden hair, I felt a sharp physical loss, as though my own body were mutilated. I was literally glad to have time to take in his death alone. It meant that in my incestuous way I could hold on a little longer to something about him which for the moment was mine alone. He had been like the sun in my universe, and most of my aspirations at school and in my daily life had centered on winning his approval. Now there were not just my father's wishes to be carried out in his absence, but Bob's too. I realized I would always be trying to live out his life for him.
[She wakes her other brother, Barry, and tells him.]
Downstairs, we sat together again, waiting out the night, just as we had waited out the day of our father's death together. As the first light came, it struck me like a blow that the sun would soon rise on a world without Bob....While Barry went to make his phone call, I crept about the kitchen to make us hot tea. When he returned we drank it, our lips chattering against the cups from cold and shock. After he left I settled in to wait, watcing the sun rise, staring at the new day in frozen sorrow. We had thought there could be no greater grief than the loss of our father, but there was and it was upon us. I knew with foreboding how it would affect our mother.
...my mother...looked like a character in a fairy story on whom a sudden spell has been cast. She said in an incredulous voice to no one in particular, "But he was my first baby." We nodded and then they set out.
After my brother Bob's death, it seemed as though I had lost the capacity for emotional responses. Daily life was in black and white, like a badly made film. My trancelike state excluded music, feeling, color, desire. Although on the surface I was doing well, I was actually going through each day like an automaton....I gave up athletic competition because during the practice hours after school I was haunted by the knowledge of my mother, alone at home. I often came in to find her just sitting gazing into space.
I never touched the keys of a piano again, nor could I listen to music. When I heard something Bob had played or that we had listened to together I could not manage the feelings of grief that swept over me. Just as with our departure from Coorain, my consciousness had retreated to a great distance. It was hard to bring it back to earth unless I was concentrating every energy on some difficult intellectual effort. I came to love my hours of homework because when I finally sat down alone in my room with my books, I could get my mind and body together again, and escape the discomfort of watching the world from the other side of some transparent but impenetrable window. At school I laughed when people told jokes...but I could not really participate. When we went to the theater, I sat physically in the stalls but was emotionally somewhere up with the lighting tracks and girders of the building....
If we were sad, [our mother] was distraught. I often wondered if it would be better to rend one's garments and tear one's hair to express grief. My mother was quiet, but frozen....
We never spoke about Bob, or about our mother's worrisome state. We enjoyed the quiet, unspoken communication of two inarticulate but devoted people.