Authors: Colleen McCullough
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Romance, #Modern, #Historical
The wind was particularly bitter, even
for January in Holloman, Connecticut. When Dr Joshua Christian strode round the
corner from Cedar Street onto Elm Street it hit him full in the face, a stream
of arctic air with fangs and talons of ice chewing and clawing at the little
sections of facial skin he had to expose to see where he was going. Oh, he knew
where he was going; he just wished it wasn't necessary to see his
So different from the old days, when Elm
Street had been the main drag of the black ghetto; parrot colours and proud
people wearing them, laughter everywhere, lots of children spilling out of
doorways on skate boards and roller skates… Such beautiful children, glossy and
full of fun, and always so many because the street was the best place of all to
play, the street was where it all was at.
Maybe one day Washington and the state
capitals would find the money to do something about the northern inner cities,
but right now there were much higher priorities than deciding what exactly to do
with a hundred thousand streets of empty three-family houses in a thousand
northern towns and cities. So in the meantime the grey-weathered plywood nailed
across windows and doors rotted, and the grey paint peeled, and the grey tiles
flapped off the roofs, and the stoops crumbled, and the grey sidings gaped.
Thank God for the wind! It broke the silence. It screamed in the wires overhead,
it moaned through gaps narrow and stagnant, it sobbed a little in the back of
its mighty throat drawing breath to wail again, it chattered as it swept frozen
leaves and empty cans into heaps, it thundered against a hollow iron tank in the
vacant lot next to the long-closed Abie's Liquor Store and Bar on the corner of
Dr Joshua Christian was a Holloman man:
born, bred, educated, shaped. He could not conceive of living anywhere else, had
never dreamed of living anywhere else. He loved the place, Holloman. Loved it!
Untenanted, unwanted, unlovely, economically unfeasible — no matter. He loved
this town still. Holloman was home. And in its ineffable way it had moulded this
whatever-it-was he had become, for he had dwelled in it through the last phases
of its dying, and now he wandered alone amid its desiccated remains.
In the grey afternoon light everything
was grey. Grey the rows of empty houses, grey the streets, grey the bark of
leafless trees, grey the sky.
I have worked upon the world and it shall be
The colour of no-colour. The epitome of grief. The form of loneliness.
The quintessence of desolation.
Oh, Joshua! Wear not the colour of grey, even
in your mind!
Better. Better. He was moving farther up
Elm now, and now there was an occasional occupied house. A tenanted dwelling
possessed a certain subtle lack of dilapidation; other than that, both deserted
and lived-in houses looked the same. Both were boarded over every window
opening, front doors were boarded over too, and no chink of light showed
anywhere. But the porch and stoop of an occupied house would be swept, the weeds
would be kept down, the siding super-thick aluminium and therefore
Dr Christian's pair of three-family
houses was on Oak just around the corner from Elm and just beyond the big
junction of Elm with Route 78; about two miles from the main downtown Holloman
post office, to which he had walked on this grey afternoon to post his mail and see if there were any
letters in his box. The mailman came not any more.
Approaching numbers 1045 and 1047 Oak
Street from the other side of that well-named thoroughfare, with its
eighty-year-old trees poking their knobby toes out of the sidewalk, Dr Christian
paused automatically to check his residences out. Fine. No light. To see light
from outside meant there was air getting in. Cold unwelcome air. The normal
opening and closing of the back door and the opening of a useless hot air vent
that led to a furnaceless basement was quite sufficient exchange of that
essential but freezing commodity.
His two houses were grey, like nearly all
the rest, and had been built, like nearly all the rest, back around the turn of
the twentieth century to accommodate three separate sets of tenants. However,
his two houses were joined at their waists on the second floor by a bridge
passageway, and had been renovated to serve a different purpose than the
original three-family one. Number 1045 housed his practice, number 1047 his
Satisfied nothing was amiss, he crossed
the road, not bothering to look either way; there were no cars in Holloman and
no bus route down Oak, so three feet of obdurately frozen snow humped itself
unevenly all over the open space of the street, thrown there when the sidewalks
Ingress to 1045 and 1047 from the outside
was around the back, so he walked beneath the connecting passageway and turned
left at the end of 1047; he had no patients booked and did not want to tempt
fate by entering 1045.
The small deck which used to occupy the
landing at the top of the back steps had long been closed in, its solid core
door opening outward over the steps. A key in the lock, and then he was inside
the makeshift cubicle which added a much-needed second area of insulation against the inclement world.
Another key, another door, which led him into the original outer vestibule; here
he hung up his fur-edged bonnet, his scarf and his outermost coat, and stacked
his boots on the rack. After donning slippers, he opened the third door, not
locked this time. He was inside his home at last.
The kitchen. Mama was at the stove, where
else? Given all the premises of her nature and her choice of occupation, she
ought by rights to have been a little dumpy woman in her middle sixties,
wrinkled of face and thick of ankle — he laughed aloud at the ridiculousness of
it, and she turned around, smiling, holding out her arms to him in generous
'What's so funny, Joshua?'
'I was just playing a game.'
Because she was the mother of several
psychologists, familiarity with the breed often made her seem more intelligent
and better educated than she actually was; as now, when instead of asking, 'A
game?' or 'What game?' she asked, 'Which game?'
He sat down on the corner of her work
table and swung one foot, fishing in the bowl of fruit she always kept there
until he found a sweet sound apple.
'I was imagining,' he said between
crunches, 'that your appearance matched the rest of you.' He grinned at her,
half closing his eyes in a mock assessment. 'You know — old and plain and marked
forever with the stigmata of years of toil!'
She took this in the spirit intended, and
laughed. Her face creased up deliciously, dimples popping out in either smooth
silky cheek just where the pink bloom over the high bones faded quite sharply
into palest cream. Never sullied by cosmetic, her red lips parted to show
perfect teeth, and the great blue eyes, myopically misty, shone with liquid
health between their long dark lashes. Not a thread of silver marred her glorious hair, gold as ripe wheat,
thick, wavy, glossy, long, worn simply in a knot on her neck.
And he caught his breath, astonished —
oh, perpetually astonished — that his mother —
mother! — was still
the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in all his life. She was utterly
unconscious of it, or so, fondly, he thought; no, Mama didn't have a vain bone
in her body. And though he was thirty-two, she was still four months short of
her forty-eighth birthday. She had been a child bride; they said she had loved
his much older father to distraction, and had deliberately got herself pregnant
in order to overcome his scruples against marrying such a beautiful young girl.
Comforting, to think that his father could not resist her blandishments
Joshua Christian remembered his father
only vaguely, for he had perished when Joshua was barely four years old, and
Joshua was never sure at that whether he actually did remember, or whether he
saw his father in the mirror of his mother's many stories. He was the image of
his father — poor man, then! What on earth had he owned to make Mama love him so
much? Very tall and very thin, sallow-skinned, black-haired, black-eyed, with a
face that caved in below its cheekbones and a big narrow eagle's beak of a
He came to with a start, realizing that
his mother was watching him out of eyes brimming with love; the simplest, purest
love. So pure he never felt it as a burden, even, but could accept all of it
without fear or guilt.
'Where is everyone?' he asked, going to
stand beside the stove so she could talk to him more comfortably.
'Not come in from the clinic
'You really ought to pass a few of the
domestic chores to the girls, Mama.'
'I don't need to,' she said firmly; this
was an ever-recurring topic. 'The girls belong in 1045.'
'The house is too big to run
'It's children make it hard to run a
house, Joshua, and there are no children in this house.' Her voice was faintly
sad, but carefully devoid of reproach. Then she made a visible effort to cheer
up, and said brightly, 'I've no need to dust, which must be the only advantage
of a modern winter. Dust just can't get in!'
'I'm proud of your positive thinking,
'A fine example I'd be to your patients
if I complained! One day James and Andrew will each have his child, and I'll be
in my element again, because the mothers will go right on being needed in 1045.
After all, I'm the one with the real mother experience! I belong to the last
lucky generation, I was free to have as many children as I wanted, and I wanted
— oh, dozens! I got four in four years and if your father hadn't passed on I
would have got more. I'm blessed, Joshua, and I never forget it.'
He couldn't bring himself to say what he
burned to say, of course: oh, Mama, how selfish you were!
yourself and Father at a time when most of the rest of the world had gone down
not to duplicating its parents but to halving its parents, and a large part of
it was asking itself louder and louder why we in America should continue to have
it all? Now your four children must pay for your blind and insular
thoughtlessness. That is the real burden we carry. Not the cold. Not the lack of
privacy and comfort when we travel. Not even the strict regimentation so far
from any true American heart. The children. Or rather, the no
The intercom screeched.
Dr Christian's mother beat him to it,
listened a moment, then put the receiver down with a word of thanks. 'James says
if you're free he'd like you to come over. Mrs Fane is there, and she's
brought another of the Pat-Pats with her.'
Undoubtedly he should see James before
encountering Mrs Patti Fane and her other Pat-Pat, so Dr Christian elected to go
up one floor and cross via the bridge to 1045, thus avoiding the waiting
Sure enough, James was hovering at the
1045 end of the passageway.
'Don't tell me she didn't cope, I won't
believe it,' said Dr Christian, turning to walk with his brother towards the
front of the middle storey, where his office was located.
'She coped magnificently,' said
'Then what's the problem?'
'I'll bring her up. She can tell you
By the time James showed Mrs Patti Fane
in, Dr Christian had settled himself not behind the enormous desk straddling one
whole corner of the room, but on a lumpy, friendly couch.
'What happened?' asked Dr Christian
'It was a disaster,' said Mrs Fane,
seating herself on the far end of the couch.
'Well, it started off okay. The girls
were all glad to see me after my four-month absence, and very taken with my
tapestry work, Doctor! Milly Thring — I must have told you how dumb she is —
couldn't get over the fact that I'm earning money doing work for antique
'Were you the source of the
'Oh, no! So long as I was talking
everything went fine, even when I told them the cause of my breakdown was the
letter I had from the Second Child Bureau notifying me I hadn't been lucky in