NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE Elizabeth Hunter, an ex-socialite in her eighties, has a mystical experience during a summer storm in Sydney which transforms all her relationships: her existence becomes charged with a meaning which communicates itself to those around her. From this simple scenario Patrick White unfurls a monumental exploration of the tides of love and hate, comedy and tragedy, impotence and and longing that fester within family relationships.
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Patrick White was born in England in 1912 and taken to Australia, where his father owned a sheep farm, when he was six months old. He was educated in England at Cheltenham college and King's College, Cambridge. He settled in London, where he wrote several unpublished novels, then served in the RAF during the war. He returned to Australia after the war. He became the most considerable figure in modern Australian literature, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. The great poet of Australian landscape, he turned its vast empty spaces into great mythic landscapes of the soul. His position as a man of letters was controversial, provoked by his acerbic, unpredictable public statements and his belief that it is eccentric individuals who offer the only hope of salvation. He died in September 1990.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Eye of the Storm
OneTHE OLD woman's head was barely fretting against the pillow. She could have moaned slightly.'What is it?' asked the nurse, advancing on her out of the shadow. 'Aren't you comfortable, Mrs Hunter?''Not at all. I'm lying on corks. They're hurting me.'The nurse smoothed the kidney-blanket, the macintosh, and stretched the sheet. She worked with an air which was not quite professional detachment, nor yet human tenderness; she was probably something of a ritualist. There was no need to switch on a lamp: a white light had begun spilling through the open window; there was a bloom of moonstones on the dark grove of furniture.'Oh dear, will it never be morning?' Mrs Hunter got her head as well as she could out of the steamy pillows.'It is,' said the nurse; 'can't you -- can't you feel it?' While working around this almost chrysalis in her charge, her veil had grown transparent; on the other hand, the wings of her hair, escaping from beneath the lawn, could not have looked a more solid black.'Yes. I can feel it. It is morning.' The old creature sighed; then the lips, the pale gums opened in the smile of a giant baby. 'Which one are you?' she asked.'De Santis. But I'm sure you know. I'm the night nurse.''Yes. Of course.'Sister de Santis had taken the pillows and was shaking them up, all but one; in spite of this continued support, Mrs Hunter looked pretty flat.'I do hope it's going to be one of my good days,' she said. 'I do want to sound intelligent. And look - presentable.''You will if you want to.' Sister de Santis replaced the pillows. 'I've never known you not rise to an occasion.''My will is sometimes rusty.''Dr Gidley's coming in case. I rang him last night. We must remember to tell Sister Badgery.''The will doesn't depend on doctors.'Though she might have been in agreement, it was one of the remarks Sister de Santis chose not to hear. 'Are you comfortable now, Mrs Hunter?'The old head lay looking almost embalmed against the perfect structure of pillows; below the chin a straight line of sheet was pinning the body to the bed. 'I haven't felt comfortable for years,' said the voice. 'And why do you have to go? Why must I have Badgery?''Because she takes over at morning.'A burst of pigeons' wings was fired from somewhere in the garden below.'I hate Badgery.''You know you don't. She's so kind.''She talks too much - on and on about that husband. She's too bossy.''She's only practical. You have to be in the daytime.' One reason why she herself preferred night duties.'I hate all those other women.' Mrs Hunter had mustered her complete stubbornness this morning. 'It's only you I love, Sister de Santis.' She directed at the nurse that milky stare which at times still seemed to unshutter glimpses of a terrifying mineral blue.Sister de Santis began moving about the room with practised discretion.'At least I can see you this morning,' Mrs Hunter announced. 'You can't escape me. You look like some kind of -- big -- lily.'The nurse could not prevent herself ducking her veil.'Are you listening to me?'Of course she was: these were the moments which refreshed them both.'I can see the window too,' Mrs Hunter meandered. 'And something - a sort of wateriness - oh yes, the looking-glass. Allgood signs! This is one of the days when I can see better. I shall see them!''Yes. You'll see them.' The nurse was arranging the hairbrushes; the ivory brushes with their true-lovers' knots in gold and lapis lazuli had a fascination for her.'The worst thing about love between human beings,' the voice was directed at her from the bed, 'when you're prepared to love them they don't want it; when they do, it's you who can't bear the idea.''You've got an exhausting day ahead,' Sister de Santis warned; 'you'd better not excite yourself.''I've always excited myself if the opportunity arose. I can't stop now - for anyone.'Again there was that moment of splintered sapphires, before the lids, dropping like scales, extinguished it.'You're right, though. I shall need my strength.' The voice began to wheedle. 'Won't you hold my hand a little, dear Mary - isn't it? de Santis?'Sister de Santis hesitated enough to appease the spirit of her training. Then she drew up a little mahogany tabouret upholstered in a faded sage. She settled her opulent breasts, a surprise in an otherwise austere figure, and took the skin and bone of Mrs Hunter's hand.Thus placed they were exquisitely united. According to the light it was neither night nor day. They inhabited a world of trust, to which their bodies and minds were no more than entrance gates. Of course Sister de Santis could not answer truthfully for her patient's mind: so old and erratic, often feeble since the stroke; but there were moments such as this when they seemed to reach a peculiar pitch of empathy. The nurse might have wished to remain clinging to their state of perfection if she had not evolved, in the course of her working life, a belief - no, it was stronger: a religion - of perpetual becoming. Because she was handsome in looks and her bearing suggested authority, those of her colleagues who detected in her something odd and reprehensible would not have dared call it 'religious'; if they laughed at her, it was not to her face. Even so, itcould have been the breath of scorn which had dictated her choice of the night hours in which to patrol the intenser world of her conviction, to practise not only the disciplines of her professed vocation, but the rituals of her secret faith.Then why Mrs Hunter? those less dedicated or more rational might have suggested, and Mary de Santis failed to explain; except that this ruin of an over-indulged and beautiful youth, rustling with fretful spite when not bludgeoning with a brutality only old age is ingenious enough to use, was also a soul about to leave the body it had worn, and already able to emancipate itself so completely from human emotions, it became at times as redemptive as water, as clear as morning light.This actual morning old Mrs Hunter opened her eyes and said to her nurse, 'Where are the dolls?''Where you left them, I expect.' Because her inept answer satisfied neither of them, the nurse developed a pained look.'But that's what they always say! Why don't they bring them?' Mrs Hunter protested.The nurse could only bite her lip; the hand had been dragged away from hers.'Of course you know about the dolls. Don't say I didn't tell you.' The old woman was threatening to become vindictive. 'We were living beside the - oh, some - some geographical river. My father had given me a hundred dolls. Think of it - a hundred! Some of them I didn't look at because they didn't interest me, but some I loved to distraction.'Suddenly Mrs Hunter turned her head with such a doll's jerk Sister de Santis held her breath.'You know it isn't true,' the old child complained. 'It was Kate Nutley had the dolls. She was spoilt. I had two - rather battered ones. And still didn't love them equally.'Sister de Santis was troubled by the complexities of a world she had been forced to re-enter too quickly.'I tore the leg off one,' Mrs Hunter admitted; her recovered calm was enviable.'Didn't they mend it?' the nurse dared inquire.'I can't remember.' Mrs Hunter gave a little whimper. 'And have to remember everything today. People try to catch you out - accuse you - of not - not loving them enough.'She was staring at the increasing light, if not glaring, frightfully.'And look my best. Bring me my looking-glass, Nurse.'Sister de Santis fetched the glass: it was of that same ivory set as the brushes with lovers' knots in gold and lapis lazuli. Holding it by its fluted handle she tilted the glass for her patient to look. The nurse was glad she could not see the reflection: reflections can be worse than faces.Mrs Hunter was panting. 'Somebody must make me up.''Sister Badgery will see to that.''Oh, Badgery! She's awful. If only little Manhood were here - she knows how to do it properly. She's the one I like.''Sister Manhood won't be here till lunch.''Why can't somebody telephone her?''She'll still be asleep. And later she'll probably have some shopping to do.'Mrs Hunter was so upset she let her head drop on the pillow: tears gushed surprisingly out of the half-closed eyes.Sister de Santis heard her own voice sound more placid than she felt. 'If you rest your mind you'll probably look far more beautiful as your natural self. And that is how they'll want to see you.'But the old woman fully closed her eyes. 'Not now. Why, my lashes are gone - my complexion. I can feel the freckles, even on my eyelids, without having to look for them.''I'm sure you're exaggerating, Mrs Hunter.' Small comfort; but the nurse's feet were aching, nor had her mind, her eyes, adjusted themselves to daylight: the withdrawal of darkness had left her puffy and moth-like.When she noticed her patient staring at her too obsessively. 'I'd like you to bring me something to drink. And something else - ' putting out a hand at its oldest and feeblest, 'I want you to forgiveme, Mary. Will you?' stroking no longer with bones, but the tips of feathers.The sensation experienced by Sister de Santis was scarcely sensual; nor did it lift her to that state of disembodiment they sometimes enjoyed together. It was disturbing, though.For her own protection the nurse ignored half the request, while agreeing too heartily to the other. 'All right! What do you fancy?''Nothing m...
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