This story from the Meanjin archives was first published in 1965. It was an extract from the then-unpublished novel, The Solid Mandala.
The third occasion on which he came in contact with the Feinsteins Waldo knew there was no escaping something that was being prepared. Mrs Feinstein’s formal note deliberately arranged it for the Saturday. So that you are able to introduce us to your brother, the writing ended underlined.
Waldo wondered whether he dared pretend he had not received the letter. In that way time, naked but finally rational, might solve his problem.
It was Arthur who decided which line they were to take.
‘Saturday,’ he was telling Mother, ‘both of us are going up to Feinsteins’. Do you think there’ll be a big tea? Will there be other people? Or shall I have an opportunity of making conversation with Mrs Feinstein?’
Waldo could not decide whether he had overheard.
‘What put it into your head,’ he asked, ‘that the Feinsteins are expecting you?’
‘The letter,’ Arthur said, ‘which you left lying on the dressing-table. I thought you meant me to read it, Waldo, seeing as she’s invited me.’
Mother did not even correct the grammar, but told Arthur it would be in order for him to go without his coat provided he wore his silk shirt. That was good enough to stand up to any formality.
As they walked up the hill to Feinsteins’ on the day, Waldo saw that Mother’s present of a silk shirt was much too large for Arthur. It ballooned out on his shoulders, a physical deformity to all the rest. The water, besides, was trickling down the red side-burns from Arthur’s attempts to reduce his staring hair.
‘I am looking forward to this opportunity,’ he said, ‘of meeting Mrs Feinstein socially.’
He was trembling by the time they reached Mount Pleasant, whereas it was Waldo who should have trembled, if resentment had not tempered him.
Phlox was fluttering in the beds, beside the steps which led from the road, by steep, yet clipped, grassy banks, to Feinsteins’ door.
Arthur was gasping.
‘We came all right!’ he called from near the top.
As Mr Feinstein appeared in the doorway.
‘You needn’t tell me!’ The old boy laughed. ‘And on a Saturday!’
In the hall he took Waldo aside.
‘You realize,’ he said, ‘this is to bear out a theory I expounded. Do you know, Waldo, it is the Sabbath today? Yet here is your brother blowing like a flame, or spirit of enlightenment, through a Jewish household, with all the doors thrown open.’
Waldo only half-listened. He was too agonized wondering what Arthur might get up to.
‘Shall we have a feast then, Mr Feinstein?’ Arthur called from somewhere behind.
‘Oh yes! It will be all feast!’ Mr Feinstein was shining with laughter. ‘Once upon a time it was only for a family of Jews mumbling together behind closed doors.’
‘Shall we be your family?’ Arthur was gibbering with hope and pleasure.
‘Naturally!’ Mr Feinstein could not laugh enough; his stomach laughed behind the gold chain, to say nothing of his illuminated cranium. ‘We expected nothing less.’
Though when his wife appeared he withdrew, Waldo suspected, for good. It would be for Mrs Feinstein, rather, to produce the cakes of enlightenment.
Mrs Feinstein was quite willing. Wearing the same dress as before, she had obviously prepared herself for understanding Arthur Brown. She stuck her most sympathetic smile on her flesh-coloured face.
‘You must tell me all about yourself, Arthur,’ Mrs Feinstein said.
Fortunately Arthur wasn’t taken in by that. He was too interested in the room, the same big lived-in living-room in which they had received Waldo alone on the previous occasion. Arthur was soon walking about looking at everything as though he must remember for ever.
‘What is that?’ he asked.
‘That is a prayer-cap,’ Mrs Feinstein explained pleasantly, ‘which people used to wear in the days when they still have been superstitious.’
‘Well, that’s an idea,’ Arthur said too thoughtfully. ‘I never saw anybody praying in a cap.’
For a terrible moment Waldo thought he was going to put it on. He might have, if Dulcie hadn’t opened the door.
‘Did you ever pray in a cap?’ Arthur asked as though he had seen her before, and she was only, as it were, re-appearing.
‘It’s different with women,’ Dulcie answered.
At least from that moment Waldo knew that Dulcie was seeing Arthur for the first time. She was so obviously upset. She tried to make it look as though she were repelled by the whole idea of prayer-caps, and superstition generally, whereas it was the lumpy look of Arthur Brown slobbering with imbecile excitement. Although Waldo was personally distressed that she should react in this way to his brother, he was relieved to find she was sincere.
‘Now I shall be able to remember you in your room, Dulcie, now that I have seen your face,’ Arthur was saying, or gobbling, ‘even if you never want to see me again.’
At this Mrs Feinstein began to protest by noises.
‘Why should I—’ Dulcie gave a high, unexpected laugh, ‘not want?’ She ended awkwardly in mid-air.
Because Arthur had gone up too close to her, the way he would with people in whom he was interested, to remember also by touch, it seemed.
‘Here, Arthur,’ Waldo was beginning to say, to interrupt, to drag him off.
But Mrs Feinstein’s smile continued to find the situation reasonable.
‘Because we mightn’t have enough to say to each other,’ Arthur said, looking too closely at Dulcie, into her eyes. ‘I mean, people can say and say, by the yard, but they don’t always seem to have learnt the same words.’
Then Dulcie appeared to be making a great effort.
‘I think, Arthur,’ she said, ‘you may be able to tell me a lot I shall want to hear. We may be able to teach,’ she said, ‘to teach each other things.’
‘Will you,’ Arthur shouted, seizing the opportunity, ‘teach me the piano? Will you? Can we start now?’
‘Oh yes!’ Dulcie said, and laughed with the greatest pleasure and relief.
Waldo knew he must get out quickly. Find the dunny. As he went barging out he heard the discords of music spattering out of the upright piano under Arthur’s hands. He knew how Arthur’s not quite controlled hands were behaving.
Behind him now, all was music of a kind, and laughter, as he blundered down the passage. He heard at last, against the doors he opened, Mrs. Feinstein following him.
‘I want,’ he mumbled foolishly.
‘You want the bath-room?’ Mrs Feinstein asked most sympathetically.
‘No,’ he said, in what he heard was his surliest voice. ‘The other.’
‘Here,’ she said, opening a door.
So that he did not have to go any farther, out through any grass, looking for a dunny. Here was a real porcelain lavatory with mahogany seat, on which he sat down at once and gave way to the diarrhoea which had been threatening him.
And now the music was flowing from unseen hands—they could only have been Dulcie Feinstein’s—though under Arthur’s influence, he feared. Waldo wished he could have conceived a poem. He had not yet, but would—it was something he had kept even from himself. If it would only come shooting out with the urgency of shit and music. He rocked with the spasms of his physical distress, and the strange drunkenness which the unbridled music, muffled by perhaps several doors, provoked in him. Was Dulcie playing an étude? He hoped it was an étude. He hoped against hope the Influential Client would soon speak. Then he would walk up the hill to Feinsteins’, and present himself, and say: Here I am, an intellectual, working at Sydney Municipal Library— now perhaps you will accept me, and have patience with my Australian- literary ambitions.
When Waldo returned at last he was emptied out. He had washed his face, and might have felt better, if he hadn’t heard a sound of teaspoons somewhere, from kitchen or pantry. Which meant that Mrs Feinstein was getting the tea. Which meant that Arthur was alone with Dulcie.
The music had stopped now.
As he hurried he was not afraid Arthur would behave in any way violently, oh no, it was, rather, the violence of what his twin might say.
Waldo knew he must have appeared very dry and correct as he entered the room. At least they would not see how he felt. He, Waldo, was the one who would know.
Arthur and Dulcie were sitting on the twin music-stool which held the music underneath. They were turned so that they faced each other. Their foreheads appeared almost to be touching.
‘What, a peerrot sitting on the moon? On the bottle?’
‘A pierrot painted on the bottle,’ Dulcie confirmed.
Arthur was entranced by what he was hearing and seeing, and Dulcie had changed. When he came into the room Waldo felt for the first time this is Dulcie being herself. You couldn’t say she was exactly ugly. Or perhaps he was just used to her by now.
‘You are right,’ she was saying, in reply to some remark of Arthur’s, though speaking rather to herself. ‘Amour is not the same as love. Amour has a different shape—a different meaning.’
Waldo was so horrified, he might have expressed his feelings, but fortunately Mrs Feinstein brought the tea things, and at the same time rain was beginning.
‘Oh dear, I do hate thunder!’ Mrs Feinstein admitted, and the things on the tray raided. ‘It makes me so afraid! Shut the window, Dulcie, do, please! They say lightning strikes through open windows.’
‘We shan’t be able to breathe,’ said Dulcie, but did as she was told.
Soon they were all suspended in the Feinsteins’ underwater world.
‘Arthur and I shall exchange anecdotes to drown the thunder,” Mrs Feinstein promised.
‘Is this real cinnamon toast?’ Arthur asked, helping himself to two or three fingers and stuffing them buttery into his mouth.
He looked perfectly happy sitting in a chair shaped like a toast-rack, while Mrs Feinstein told about her aunt Madame Hochapfel who had sometimes been mistaken for the Empress Eugénie, and whose salon used to be frequented by people of artistic inclinations.
‘Every Sunday. Only a minor salon,’ Mrs Feinstein added out of modesty.
‘But to be in business in a small way is better than not being in it at all,’ Arthur said through his mouthful of toast. ‘I mean, to have your own. To be independent.’
Mrs Feinstein agreed that her aunt Madame Hochapfel had kept an independent salon.
Dulcie apparently had her thoughts. Waldo couldn’t sink into his. He felt as brittle as a dry sponge. Other people had their anecdotes, or the obvious riches of their thoughts. The big drops of rain and fleshy leaves plastering the windows accentuated his unfortunate drought, his embarrassing superficiality.
Yet he knew the theory of it all. It was only a question of time. It was the mean time which weighed so heavily. It made the palms of his hands sweat.
‘And Russia,’ Mrs Feinstein sighed. ‘I can only remember the pine forests.’
‘That’s something,’ said Arthur. ‘I bet they smelled.”
Mrs Feinstein breathed deep.
‘On a visit as a little girl. To another branch. With another aunt, Signora Temi of Milan.’
The branch of a shrub, or perhaps a hydrangea, was scratching the window. They realized the rain was over. Mrs Feinstein became skittish, her private-flesh-coloured face less grey.
‘Arthur,’ she decided, ‘will help me clear away.’
So Waldo saw the garden, as he had been promised, with Dulcie, as he was on her hands. The leaves were dripping with moisture. An air of cold showers above had more or less dislodged the green gloom from underneath.
‘These are the hydrangeas you told about,’ said Waldo, though they did not interest him at all.
‘Yes,’ said Dulcie, dully. ‘And the agapanthus.’
From this occasion he would remember Dulcie breaking up into the crumbly fragments of greeny-white hydrangeas. Her dress, at any rate. Because she herself was dark brown, and ugly.
‘Arthur and Mummy are enjoying themselves immensely,’ she said. ‘But I don’t think I understand Arthur yet.’
‘What is there to understand?’ Waldo tried not to shout.
His voice sounded horribly dry and cracked under the dripping hydrangeas.
‘Though for that matter,’ she said, ‘I don’t understand myself.’
She had come out in a pimple on one side of her large nose. Which made the dog-silliness of her eyes look more obscene.
He wished he had been taught to do or say something he hadn’t been taught to do or say. He could blame his parents, of course. But it didn’t help matters.
And soon he and Arthur were walking down the steps, between the painted phlox, out of this Feinstein world which in the end had nothing to do with them. However sickening and personal the longing, the wet mops of hydrangeas, and the features of Madame Hochapfel, the details had already blurred at parting.
‘Good-bye.’ Arthur knew what to say. ‘I had a great time. I’ll come back, Dulcie, for the rest of the piano lessons. I’m not going to worry about the theory. I’m going to begin with one of those frilly pieces.’
They were walking down the red concrete steps, which had been painted shiny to please Mr Feinstein no doubt.
Arthur called back then, as though he had been giving it thought: ‘I’ll have to come back anyway, to tell you what I’ve worked out.’
Waldo was furious, who in the end had not known how to say a thing. Of course those who are sensitive don’t.
‘What do you mean,’ he began choking, after they had gone some way, ‘what you have worked out!’
‘Well,’ said Arthur, ‘you’ve got to work out something if you’re not happy.’
‘But you’re happy, Dulcie’s happy! It would only be asking for sympathy to say you weren’t.’
‘She mightn’t be,’ Arthur said.
He wouldn’t say any more. He started snorting, and grunting, and finally picking his note for comfort.
They got home.
And then there were the exams. Waldo passed with Flying Colours, even managed to scrape through Maths—where Johnny Haynes failed.
Then there was the letter summoning to the interview. (What price the Feinsteins now?) It so turned out that Waldo Brown was accepted by Sydney Municipal Library on the strength of his scholastic career at Barranugli High, his suitable appearance—and a favour asked.
In the end the Influential Client forgot to speak. It was Mrs Musto who got Waldo the job, through Alderman Caldicott, son of her former gardener. Then Mrs Musto retired, to her house, her shrubs, and her servants. She did not venture very far into other people’s lives, because she had been bitten once, no, twice, in the course of human relations, and did not want to risk her hand again.
The full Meanjin archive can be accessed at www.informit.com.au/meanjinbackfiles