THE MORAL should be revived. Therefore, this is a story with a moral. The lower end of Bill Street—otherwise William—overlooks Blue’s Point Road, with a vacant wedge-shaped allotment running down from a Scottish church between Bill Street the aforesaid and the road, and a terrace on the other side of the road. A cheap, mean-looking terrace of houses, flush with the pavement, each with two windows upstairs and a large one in the middle downstairs, with a slit on one side of it called a door—looking remarkably skully in ghastly dawns, afterglows, and rainy afternoons and evenings. The slits look as if the owners of the skulls got it there from an upward blow of a sharp tomahawk, from a shorter man—who was no friend of theirs—just about the time they died. The slits open occasionally, and mothers of the nation, mostly holding their garments together at neck or bosom, lean out—at right angles almost—and peer up and down the road, as if they are casually curious as to what is keeping the rent collector so late this morning. Then they shut up till late in the day, when a boy or two comes home from work. The terrace should be called “Jim’s Terrace” if the road is not “James’s” Road, because no bills ever seem to be paid there as they are in our street—and for other reasons. There are four houses, but seldom more than two of them occupied at one time—often only one. Tenants never shift in, or at least are never seen to, but they get there. The sign is a furtive candle light behind an old tablecloth, a skirt, or any rag of dark stuff tacked across the front bedroom window, upstairs, and a shadow suggestive of a woman making up a bed on the floor. If more than two of the houses are occupied there is almost certain to be an old granny with ragged grey hair, who folds her arms tight under her ragged old breasts, and bends her tough old body, and sticks her ragged grey old head out of the slit called a door, and squints up and down the road, but not in the interests of mischief-making—they are never here long enough—only out of mild, ragged, grey-headed curiosity regarding the health or affairs of the rent collector.
Perhaps there are no bills to be collected in Skull Terrace because no credit is given. No jugs are put out, because there is no place to put them, except on the pavement, or on the narrow window ledges, where they would be in great and constant danger from the feet or elbows of passers-by. There are no tradesmen’s entrances to the houses in Skull Terrace.
Tenants and sub-tenants often leave on Friday morning in the full glare of the day. Granny throws down garments from the top window to hurry things, and the wife below ties up much in an old allegedly green or red table-cloth, on the pavement, at the last moment. Van of the “bottle ho” variety. It is all done very quickly, and nobody takes any notice—they are never there long enough. Landlord, landlady, or rent collector—or whatever it is—calls later on; maybe, knocks in a tired, even bored, way; makes inquiries next door, and goes away, leaving the problem to take care of itself—all kind of casual. The business people of North Sydney, especially removers and labourers, are very casual. Down old Blue’s Point Road the folk get so casual that they just exist, but don’t seem to do so.
One thing I never could make out about Skull Terrace is that when one house becomes vacant from a house agent’s point of view—there is a permanent atmosphere of vacancy about the whole terrace—the people of another move into it. And there’s not the slightest difference between the houses. It is because the removal is such a small affair, I suppose, and the change is the main thing. I always do better for awhile in a new house—but then I always did seem to get on better somewhere else.
There are many points, or absence of points, about Skull Terrace that fit in with Jim’s casualness as against Bill’s character, therefore Blue’s Point Road ought to be James’s Street.
But just now, in the heat of summer, the terrace happens to be full, and all the blinds are decent—the two new-comers are newly come down to Skull Terrace, and the other blinds are looked up, washed, and fixed up by force of example or from very shame’s sake.
All of which seems to have nothing whatever to do with the story, except that the scene is down opposite my balcony as I think and smoke, and it is a blur on one of the most beautiful harbour views in the world.
I had been working hard all day, mending the fence, putting up a fowl-house and some lattice work and wiry netting, and limewashing and painting. Labours of love. I’d rather build a fowl-house than a “pome” or story, any day. And when finished—the fowl-house, I mean—I sit and contemplate my handiwork with pure and unadulterated joy. And I take a candle out several times, after dark, to look at it again. I never got such pleasure out of rhyme, story, or first-class London Academy notice. I find it difficult to drag myself from the fowl-house, or whatever it is, to meals, and harder to this work, and I lie awake planning next day’s work until I fall asleep in the sleep of utter happy weariness. And I’m up and at it, before washing, at daylight. But I was a carpenter and housepainter first.
Well, it had been a long, close day, and I was very dirty and tired, but with the energy and restlessness of healthy, happy tiredness when work is unfinished. But I was out of two-inch nails, and the shops were shut.
Then it struck me to start up the copper and have a real warm bath after my own heart and ideas. The bathroom is outside, next the wash-house and copper. There were plenty of splinters and ends of softwood that were mine by right of purchase and labour. My landlady is, and always has been, sensitive on the subject of firewood. She’ll buy anything else to make the house comfortable and beautiful. She has been known to buy a piano for one of her nieces and burn rubbish in the stove the same day. I knew she was uneasy about the softwood odds and ends, but I couldn’t help that—she’d still be sentimental about them if she had a stack of firewood as big as the house. There’s at least one thing that most folk hate to buy—mine’s boot-laces or bone studs, so long as I can make pins or inked string do.
I put a bucket of water in the copper, started a fire under that sent sparks out of the wash-house flue at an alarming rate, filled the copper to the brim, and, in the absence of a lid, covered it with a piece of flattened galvanized iron I had.
I tacked the side edge of a strip of canvas to the matchboard wall along over the inner edge of the bath, fastened a short piece of gas-pipe to the outer edge, with pieces of string through holes made in it, and let it hang down over the bath, leaving a hole at the head for my head and shoulders. I was going to have a long, comfortable, and utterly lazy and drowsy hot water and steam bath, you know.
I fastened a piece of clothes-line round and over the head of the bath, and twisted an old toilet-table cover and a towel round it where it sagged into the bath, for a head rest—also to be soaped for where I couldn’t get at my back with my hands.
I went up to my room for some things, and it struck me to arrange two chairs by the bed-candle and matches and tobacco on one side, and a pile of Jack London, Kipling, and Yankee magazines on the other, with the last Lone Hand and Bulletin on top.
Going down with pyjamas, towel, and soap, it struck me to have a kettle and a saucepan full of water on the stove to use as the water from the copper cooled.
I took a roomy, hard-bottomed kitchen chair into the bathroom; on it I placed a carefully scraped, cleared, and filled pipe, matches, more tobacco, tooth-brush, saucer with a lump of whiting and salt, piece of looking-glass—to see progress of the teeth—and knife for finger and toe nails. And I knocked up a few three-inch iron nails in the wall to hang things on. I placed a clean suit of pyjamas over the back of the chair, and over them the towels.
I arranged with the landlady to have a good cup of coffee made, as she knows how to make it, ready to hand in round the edge of the door when I should be in the bath. There’s nothing in that. I’ve been with her for years, and on account of the canvas it would be just the same as if I were in bed. On second thought I asked her to hand in some toast—or bread and butter and bloater paste—at the same time. I fed the fire with judgment, and the copper boiled just as the last blaze died down. I got a pail and carried the water to the bath, pouring it in through the opening at the head. The last few pints I dipped into the pail with a cup. I covered the opening with a towel to keep the steam and heat in until I was ready. I got the boiling water from the kitchen into the bucket, covered it with another towel, and stood it in a handy corner in the bathroom.
I made an opening, turned on the cold water, and commenced to undress. I hung my clothes on the wall, till morning, for I intended to go straight from the bath to bed in my pyjamas and to lie there reading.
I turned off the cold water tap to be sure, lifted the towel off, and put my good right foot in to feel the temperature—into about three inches of cold water, and that was vanishing.
I’d forgotten to put in the plug.
I’m deaf, you know, and the landlady, hearing the water run, thought I was flushing out the bath (we were new tenants) and wondered vaguely why I was so long at it.
I dressed rather hurriedly in my working clothes, went inside, and spread myself dramatically on the old cane lounge and covered my face with my oldest hat, to show that it was come and I took it that way. But my landlady was so full of sympathy, condolence, and self-reproach (because she failed to draw my attention to the gurgling) that she let the coffee and toast burn.
I went up and lay on my bed, and was so tired and misty and far away that I went to sleep without undressing, or even washing my face and hands.
How many, in this life, forget the plug!
And how many, ah! how many, who passed through, and are passing through Skull Terrace, commenced life as confidently, carefree, and clear headed, and with such easily exercised, careful, intelligent, practised, and methodical attention to details as I did the bath business arrangements—and forgot to put in the plug.
And many because they were handicapped physically.