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Authors: Thea Astley

The Slow Natives

BOOK: The Slow Natives
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Allen & Unwin's House of Books aims to bring Australia's cultural and literary heritage to a broad audience by creating affordable print and ebook editions of the nation's most significant and enduring writers and their work. The fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry of generations of Australian writers that were published before the advent of ebooks will now be available to new readers, alongside a selection of more recently published books that had fallen out of circulation.

The House of Books is an eloquent collection of Australia's finest literary achievements.

Thea Astley was born in Brisbane in 1925 and studied at the University of Queensland. She taught in schools in Queensland and New South Wales, then at Macquarie University in Sydney between 1968 and 1980. The author of fourteen novels, two novellas and two short story collections, she won the Miles Franklin Award four times: for
The Well Dressed Explorer
The Slow Natives
The Acolyte
(1972) and
(2000), which was also nominated for the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow
was nominated for the 1997 Miles Franklin Award, and in 1989 she was awarded the Patrick White Award for services to Australian literature. In 1992 she became an Officer in the Order of Australia, and received a special award at the 2002 NSW Premier's Literary Awards for lifetime achievement. She died in Byron Bay, New South Wales, on 17 August 2004.


The Slow Natives

This edition published by Allen & Unwin House of Books in 2012
First published by Angus & Robertson Publishers Australia in 1965

Copyright © Thea Astley 1965

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.

Allen & Unwin
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Cataloguing-in-Publication details are available from the National
Library of Australia

ISBN 978 1 74331 563 7 (pbk)
ISBN 978 1 74343 299 0 (e-book)

Sir Walt, being so strangely surpprised and putt
out of his countenance at so great a Table,
gives his son a damned blow over the face;
his son, as rude as he was, would not strike
his father, but strikes over the face of the
Gentleman that sate next to him, and sayed,
Box about, 'twill come to my Father anon

Brief Lives:
Sir Walter Raleigh.—J

“What is the black stuff between elephants' toes?”
“Slow natives!”



Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Chapter VI

Chapter VII

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX

Chapter X


when he was eleven.

No, they had both said, surprisingly in agreement, no, you may not have a six-stitcher.

He'd got a bit sick of arguing that October. The heat was terrible. The Terrace was a dried-up strip of sticky tar-paper. Okay, he had said. And he had gone into town and taken one from a city counter. It was so easy there wasn't even much fun in it. And of course he couldn't even use the ball but had to keep it hidden at the bottom of his play-box. Fondling it in bed after his light was out, once he had dropped off to sleep with it against the pillow and when it had been discovered in the morning he became involved in a series of lies he was unable to sustain. They kept on hoping for a long time that he had borrowed it from a schoolmate as he had insisted, but each knew that glossy red globe was bright with its own guilt, and he became so tired of their upset and accusing eyes he had walked down to the park near the ferry one afternoon and chucked it straight back into the river where it went bobbing off down the tide. “I gave it back,” he announced at tea. “Satisfied?”

There was a lull for a while, largely because they gave in rather than provoke another crisis, and in any case it was something he had done mainly for amusement. If he had really lived up to his intelligence quotient he would have exchanged the ball for cash or a more anonymous article; but then and afterwards his actions were motivated solely by the longing to protest against his home.

There were various ways of doing this.

Last year, for some crystalline weeks in late summer, he had been in love, not shockingly so that days melted in
atomic illumination of the phase; nor with the sadness that demanded
—canned music and stars shattering out of course in the molecular fission created by tenors. Any intensity he felt was only cultivated in order to prove he was in love; he knew it would madden his mother and he envisioned himself as another Vronsky. Slouching on a garden chair in a private place created by a mango-tree, Keith would swing one sandalled foot and examine his pudgy square-nailed toes with the beginnings of self-discovery a baby might have envied. This must be the ideal state, he pondered, youngness and love at one ringety-ding-ding swoop—aware all the time of his shorts too small for him and sun-warmed, of his hair bleaching, of guiltlessness and a good breakfast one hour earlier. There was, too, a tooth whose chipped enamel laid open another kind of tenderness.

Her name was Brenda. For three months they had waited together for the Edward Street ferry and he was interested by her finely carved arrogant profile, her private-school voice, and her quite incredibly red plaits that dissolved or caught fire in the sun as it struck her pale cheeks and closely set ears. In the pre-conversation days she had always been carrying adult novels whose jackets provided talking points that he did not early pluck up the strength to use. But later . . . later they would meet by casual cautious pre-arrangement at the top of the ferry path where it dropped down to the sodden green of the river and the mirrored park. She was not pretty but her enormous self-containment atoned.

“My parents are frightfully rich,” she told him unemphatically, not finding it necessary to pull her silk cuff back from the heavy gold watch she wore on her thin wrist. “It disgusts me.”


“Oh, I don't know. Perhaps because they're bores. I've never had to fight for a thing. It's made me horrible inside. I simply don't know what it is to enjoy things the way you would.”


“No.” She turned her grey eyes on his smiling, sulky face. “I intend to give everything away.”

“You'll be sorry afterwards.”

“You're very young,” she said in a way that fascinated and infuriated him at once. “You must believe in faith helping me do this.” Beyond them the river was carved into a silver V by the ferry. “Strength, you know, and faith. Even healing. You can do anything at all if you believe.” Her own muddled words trailed a V of dubiousness that tempted Keith to say “bosh”; but then, trapped no doubt beneath sun cascades that flowed from her head under the regulation panama, he agreed, “Perhaps.”

She took him to Christian Science gatherings in the city for a couple of Saturdays (“Changing my library books, Dad!”) and the amalgam of sincerity and phoniness had them embedded like two new sharp teeth. Once, moved by weather, springtime buildings in the lists with clouds, the sensuous apparatus of a Brisbane summer, she had taken his hand as they came jangling on the tram's hell-box through the Gabba and for just those few seconds Keith had wondered why there should be anything beyond this moment but her hand, flat, warm, firm—and only that—impressing all the season on his own palm with such unexpected generosity he heard himself say, as if he had extracted the words from her own pale mouth, “I wish I could give you today.”

And from that uneasy ledge of utterance he viewed promised lands he had uneasily awaited.

“Tomorrow will do very nicely,” she had said.

“But school?”

“School nothing.”

“I can't ask you home,” he said.


“Oh, my parents. They're . . .”

“They're what?”

“I don't know. If you met Bernard you'd know what I mean.”

“What's wrong with him?”

“Nothing's wrong, I suppose. Oh God, yes. Everything is. He's sloppy and middle-aged and going bald and red and gets full.”

“All the time?”

“No. Not all the time. But enough.”

“Doesn't he like you?”

“Yes, of course he does. That's what's so ghastly. He loves me and I'm ashamed of him. He lets mum wear the pants because he simply isn't sufficiently interested to care. He repeats his jokes and forgets things a kid would know and makes feeble puns and stops talking about sex when I come into the room. And now—now he doesn't even play the piano particularly well.”

“But does that matter?”

“Oh, I guess not. But I used to be rather proud of him once and now I feel such a crumb when people know he does it for a crust—teaches, I mean—and he still mucks about with corny bits of things. Never finishes a movement. ‘That's how it goes,' he says. ‘Afraid I'm terribly out of practice.' And he dishes up one of those Chopin instant waltzes.”

Brenda got it and shrieked. Mischievously she tied the ends of her plaits in a half reef-knot and pulled them up towards her chin.

“What about your mother, then?”

“You've seen Iris on the ferry and things.”

“Yes. But only smiles and social hellos. What's she like actually?”

“A nice dull ordinary mum. No. Not so nice really, the way she pushes the old boy around.”

“Why doesn't he stand up for himself?”

“Oh, he's not that sort. He's too gentle. Wishy-washy, I guess you'd call it. After all, he does have a brain. Maybe one of these days he'll run away with a blonde stenographer. Fancy letting himself be shoved around by a bird-brain!”

“Oh, Keith!”

“Well, she is, really. Bedroom stacked up with digests and crummy magazines.”

“But so is mine.”

“Well . . . there you are!”

He took her to the pictures one Saturday night and afterwards, instead of going home, they wandered along the Terrace, sports coat clutching polished cotton, out of step in more than one way to the small creek that ran down near the end of the links. Despite the invitation of house shadow,
tree shadow, and finally the isolation of the haunted links, he could not find the courage to kiss her. His ardour was modified by certain pressing physical needs that he was far too shy to mention; though if he had only known it, she was suffering also, regretting the orange squash at interval and the double capuccino afterwards.

They crossed the foot-bridge and finally he said, “Could you walk on for a bit, Brenda?”

She knew at once what he wanted and hated him because she could not similarly take advantage of his absence. Female, she was trained to endure. She walked slowly, deliberately away along the path, not nearly quickly enough for Keith, who paused by the bridge-rail and waited impatiently for her to move ahead. She was still visible but a white lost shape in the granulated dusk when he relieved himself into the stream.

BOOK: The Slow Natives
12.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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