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Tenth Instalment of the "Herald's" Second Prize Novel.

YOU CAN'T SE  

ROUND CORNERS

By JON CLEARY

Illustrated by JAMES PHILLIPS

FRANKIE McCOY, an arrogant Paddington larrikin, who

earned his money as a starting-price bookmaker at Flanagan's hotel, received his call-up for army service. His one great love, aside from himself, has been Margie Harris, whom he plans to marry. The demands of military authority and his independence prove incompatible, and he deserts from camp. He rents a room from Flanagan and plans to return to bookmaking. Margie, when she hears what he has done, breaks with him, and refuses

to let him ring her until he returns to the army.

     

PRIDE, the enemy in the camp of appeasement, the     relic of his battle against  

the world, moved swiftly through McCoy like a rumour, fol- lowed his thought of phoning Margie,   and his intentions fell, beaten before they could be tried. Why the hell should he run after her? He never had before and he wasn't going to start now. Maybe she thought she was right, but he was just as sure that he wasnot wrong, and, anyway, it was     his life that was being decided. Yeah, she could sit and wait. If she wanted him she'd come to him, and if she didn't, well, then, she wasn't worth

chasing.

He stubbed the cigarette savagely, the action affixing the seal of his pride, went along to the bathroom, shaved and showered, came back to the bedroom and dressed, and went

down to breakfast.

Because of lack of staff the hotel's dining-room was closed, and last night he had eaten in the kitchen with   Flanagan and his wife. He went into the kitchen now and there was a girl standing at the stove. She turned

round as she heard him.

"Ready?" Her voice was clear and confident; she would meet the world face to face and nothing and no one

would daunt her.

"Yeah. What've we got?"

"You're lucky. We managed to get some eggs. Take your time over them—there won't be any more for a

long time."

She put the plate in front of him and turned back to the stove. While he buttered a slice of toast he looked at her, his eyes running over with the sharp appreciation of long prac- tice. Her hair was dark, wrapped now in a scarf, and her figure, from the back, was firm and rounded, her legs good and long, then she turned and he saw the sharp swell of her form, the dimpled chin, the wide mouth, the short nose, and the clear grey eyes looking at him.

"Stick to the eggs," she said. "This don't come with the board and lodg-

ings."

"Is it against the house rules to

look?"

"The way you were, it is." There was no annoyance in her voice; she had the situation well in hand, as if she had faced it many times before.

"Sharp, ain't you?" He juggled egg on his fork then raised it to his

mouth.

"I've read the Little Blue Books. What Every Young Girl Should

Know."

"And what do you know?"

"That you ain't getting anywhere." He looked at her, chewing on egg and toast, then he grinned and she smiled

back.

"I think you and me are going to get on all right," he said.

"I think so." She turned back to the stove then looked over her shoul- der. "But don't look at me again like that. I don't like it." Her voice was not sharp, but friendly; she could have been telling him she did not like as- paragus or some male film star.

HE finished breakfast and went

through the closed dining-room     into the bar. Flanagan leaned on the bar, his stomach pressing against it, the morning paper spread out before him. He read it all, from page one to the sporting page on the back, reading the pages in sequence as he would a book. A lot of it he did not understand, especially some of the leader articles, but he felt his position as a hotelkeeper; a good host could join in conversation with any one of his guests. His text-books were the morning and evening papers, his pro- fessors the editors, his alma mater the newsagent's. He looked up now as McCoy entered.

"Hullo. Had your breakfast?"

"Yeah. Who's the new piece you got cooking for you?"

"Meg. A niece of the wife."

"Not a bad line."

"She's all right." Flanagan looked at himself in the wall mirror and re-

arranged a camouflaging strand of hair with delicate fingers. "But you won't do any good with her. She's going with some bloke in the Air

Force."

"I was just looking. I ain't buy-

ing."

Flanagan folded the paper, putting away the lesson for this morning.

"Wanna drink?"

McCoy grinned. "Always looking for a customer, eh? No. It's too soon

after breakfast."

Flanagan mirrored the grin. "It's

never too soon."

"With a gut like yours, there's room for both." Flanagan's stomach was a smooth protuberance between his chest and pelvis, hanging with the heaviness of a bag tight with water. "People like me've got to wait till there's room." Flanagan patted his stomach affectionately. "Where's the missus? I didn't see her at break-

fast."

"She don't get up for breakfast. She has a double lunch." Flanagan laughed, leaning back, and his stomach came up over the bar like a whale rising.

McCoy looked at his watch. "Think I got time for a haircut. If anyone comes up for a bet while I'm away, take their slips, will you? Tell 'em

I won't be long."

He walked down the street, pushing through the Saturday morning crowd,  

nodding to people he recognised, back in the warm familiar stream. The street was busy, preparing for the week-end: women leaning sideways against the weight of suitcases hold- ing Sunday's dinner; bunches of flow- ers were clutched tightly. Nature's colour going down into the drab little homes; girls, their hair in pins, their faces smeared with cream, showed none of the cheap glamour they would wear to-night; young boys, barefooted, rode dangerously on he footboards of trams, wild in the week-end freedom from school; Saturday was the highlight of the week and you could feel the relaxed atmosphere, the spirit almost akin to

carnival. There would be cricket and

swimming and tennis, and the races this afternoon, and to-night there would be dancing and the films, or maybe a trip to Luna Park; sports clothes and the best suit and the gay frock would be donned; the overalls of work had been laid aside till Mon- day.

He turned in at Curly Thompson's,   the barber. The two chairs were already occupied, and he sat down on the leather-covered bench along the- wan, lit a cigarette, and picked up a paper. Curly Thompson, a short, red-faced man with horn-rimmed spec- tacles, whose bright, cheerful smile was as false as the teeth he showed, turned from the man he was shaving, the razor held casually an inch from

the man's throat.  

"G'day, Frankie. Back on leave?" "Yeah." Thompson was the garru- lous type; he would begin asking ques- tions if encouraged. McCoy raised the paper again.

"How was it?" Thompson swiftly, deftly ran the razor over the man's

face.

It was Palm Beach and a mil- lion quid. That was why he was back here. "So-so. Could've been bet- ter."

"I'd liked to've seen that." Thomp- son laughed, a rich sound that some- how seemed forced, false as his smile. "That strikes me as funny, you on a route march."

McCoy repeated the laugh, hollow

and thin. "Ha-ha. You must laugh

easy."

He turned over the first page of the paper; it carried only news of the war, something unrelated to him, something as impersonal as bubonic plague in another country or a bush- fire in another State; only other people were affected by it, but not

he.

An inner page carried a column on the rape and murder of the girl at Belmore. The police were making progress; they had traced the girl's movements on the night she was mur- dered, and she had been seen to leave a dance-hall in the city with a man in uniform; they were hopeful of an early arrest. McCoy sat reading the report, more interested in it than in the war that was being fought for his freedom, wondering if somewhere else the murderer, too, was reading this same paper. Was he perhaps cut- ting out all reports on the crime, keep- ing a dossier on the police's progress, living in fear of the day he would open the door to the law and his punishment? But whether he was caught or not, he would get no sym- pathy from McCoy; the b——d deserved to be hanged.

"Ready, Frankie?" The shaven man had survived Thompson's casual   blade and was stepping from the chair; he had lived to come another

day.

McCoy hung his hat on a peg, loosened his collar, and got into the vacant chair. Thompson stood be- hind him, looking at him in the wall

mirror.

"What is it?" Thompson said.  

"Haircut. Don't make it too short. Last time I threw my comb away.

I didn't need it."  

Thompson proffered a laugh, an   empty compliment to the customer's wit. He flipped a white drape round McCoy's neck and took scissors and comb from the breast pocket of his

overall.

"Going back into business while   you're down?"

"Yeah. That's what I wanted to

see you about. Will you let any of the boys know if you see them this morning?" He spoke directly to Thompson's image in the mirror, see- ing beyond Thompson the mirror on the wall opposite reflecting the mirror immediately before him. He and Thompson were repeated again and again, stretching on to infinity, the final tiny figures distant and only

faintly familiar.

"Sure. Where'll you be? Up at Flanagan's?"

"Yeah. I'm going straight back there now, if they want me." .

"Okay. I'll tell 'em."

The thin nervous jazz of clicking scissors took the place of voices. But Thompson was not meant for silence; he was the original of barber caricatures, the voice that was never

stilled.

"Seen your girl at the pictures the other night."

"Yeah?" My girl: the phrase had a soft ache about it, the sweet re- gretful pain of things past. "Who

was she with?"

"Her mother." Thompson smiled into the mirror, slyly, knowingly. "You ain't got to worry about her,

Frankie."  

"No." You're right there, sport; there's no need to worry about some-

thing that doesn't belong to you any more. "No. I ain't got to worry

about her."

"You're pretty lucky. I bet half the blokes in Paddington would give quids to have her as their girl."

Well, now was their chance.. "Yeah, I'm lucky, I suppose."

The scissors clicked, a sharp sound

without emotion.

FOR one day each week the war commentators gave away to   the racing commentators, and the latter crowded before the vacated microphones with almost impatient eagerness. From early morning their metallic voices, crackling like tinfoil, monotonously alike as if they had been pounded into the same flat key by the pound-   ing hoofs they had been watching for so long, brought the urgent news of the loss of form of some favourite, of the desperate fight to save the life of an injured star performer, and the sensationally good news that penicillin could save horses, too, of the prima donna temperament of some trainers   who were keeping the public guessing as to whether their charges would start. At twelve-thirty, the racing men took a breather and, almost as if they were racing against time, as if they could not really believe the micro- phone was theirs for ten minutes, the war commentators stepped in with

their news.

The racing men came back, now speaking from the course, waiting for the first race, filling in time by telling, with the affection of foster-parents, of the pedigrees of some of the after- noon's performers. Then the bell

clanged, a faint sound on the radio, and for the rest of the afternoon they, shrill with excitement, whipped to an ecstatic frenzy by the beauty of the flying blurred colours, standards rushing headlong into action, the terrific power in the flailing legs, the bombardment of hoofs, and the over- all roars of the crowd, described the battle of the straight. For one day a week glory was spread more evenly through the evening papers: Randwick and Rostov shared the headlines, jockeys walked with generals, betting prices were as important as casualty

lists.

McCoy sat in the small room at the rear of the hotel, paper spread before him, pencils sharpened, the executive waiting for business. The bettors began to drift in, poor men hoping to multiply their pence.

"Good old Frankie. Going to take some more dough off us, eh?"

No. He was a relief organisation for mug punters, McCoy of the help- ing hand. Small-time though he was, he had the bookmakers cynical out- look upon punters.

"I'll have a quid on Flight; if any, another quid on—"

"Know something, do you?"

"No. But I won last time and I can take a risk to-day."

''You're taking a hell of a risk with Flight. Why don't you just take the money now?"

"Ah, I want to give you a run for your money."

"Thanks. You haven't got any used stamps you want to give away, have  

you?"

There was a steady stream, like callers paying their respects to a re- turned celebrity, each man bringing an offering; they had evidently missed him while he was away. Their wel- come was warm: he had rarely taken so much money on an ordinary race day. People were betting with the abandon—a desperately nervous abandon, shadowed by poverty—of Derby or Cup Day, and he had a sudden fear, coming out of his ignor- ance of the track form of the last two  

months, that he was committing him-  

self too far, that he was an innocent among the wise, a bird to be plucked.  

But he continued to take the bets; he could not look his welcome in the face.

From the very first race the horses were against him. There was some conspiracy in the field to allow only the well-backed horses to come home first. They went past the post easy winners, and on the radio the roar of the crowd sounded like jeers aimed at him. He rang up other book- makers and laid off some of the money, but he was, fighting a losing battle, only reducing his casualties. When the last race was run and the betting prices for the afternoon were then given he added up his sheets and the debit side weighed heavily. He had lost more than he had ever lost before, and, remembering his assets, he knew there would be some people who would have to wait for their winnings.

He had come home and the fatted calf had turned on bim.

THE music was loud and brassy, sending solidly, trumpets reaching   to the roof to bring down a note, the drummer, hot-seated, twisting and turning with orgiastic ecstasy, the

pianist, one shoulder raised high, the other dropped, a normal man mis- shapen by hot rhythm, his hands fall- ing with exaggerated precision on the keyboard; the music came in blasts, vital and wild, and the room throbbed with hot blood and the beat of ex- cited feet.  

McCoy stood at the main entrance to the dance floor and looked out on the crowd, seeing the jiving couples, the dazzle of colour, the flashing legs, the bobbing heads, hearing, without listening, the almost barbaric music, feeling and absorbing the heat and excitement of the place. He was glad

he had come.

It was Saturday night, and he missed Margie, There was no use

denying it; you could not deny the   arm that had been taken, the sun that had gone behind a cloud; to others he might have denied the effect of the separation upon himself, but there were no others; he was his own con- fidant. All day he had sat in the back room of the hotel, breathing cigarette smoke till his lungs knew only the memory of fresh air, hearing only the names of horses that meant cash out of his pocket, listening to the monotonous roughness of men's voices, smelling beer and the stale- ness of the room and then, after tea, lying in the quietness of his own room, depressed by the afternoon's losses, feeling loneliness coming in with the darkness, he had begun to think about Margie again. They had always seen each other three and four times during the week, but Saturday night, as a date, had had a perman- ency about it like some anniversary. They would go to the pictures, to a theatre in town, or perhaps just to the local, or over to Luna Park, where, screaming through her laughter, grip- ping his arm, holding to him, depend- ing on him, she would ride with him on the Big Dipper, or they would go to a dance. She had been a beautiful dancer; music came out of her, in smooth flowing motion and one could not help but dance well with her; together, he knew, they had been a pair to admire.

He had lain there in the dark room, feeling the presence of her: he could put out his hand and touch her, she seemed so close; could feel the pliancy of her body, the smoothness of her cheek, could smell the crispness of   her hair and the freshness of her body. She was there in the room, where she had never been, like a ghost. He stared at the blackness above him and wondered what she was doing to-night. Would some other fellow be calling for her? No, he knew that was wrong—not so soon. Perhaps in a week or two, but not to-night.

Ah, what the hell! Why worry about her? He was wasting time, just like he had in the army. She wasn't the only girl in the world; there were plenty others who would go out with him. He sat up and switched on the light; the darkness and the ghost disappeared.  

He had showered and dressed, tak- ing care with his appearance, the cavalier moving into new fields, and come into town. He had alighted at Park Street and walked down toward George, strolling slowly while crowds hurried by him, people going to the theatre or to a concert at the Town Hall or to the Trocadero, and  

he walking aimlessly, gazing about him like a tourist, then he turned left into George, following the crowd going down to the Trocadero, and suddenly he decided that was where he would go. He had not been   there in over two years, but he knew there were always a lot of girls there on their own, and he should have no trouble picking up one. He did not want to spend the rest of the night

alone.  

In a wild shattering crescendo of brass, the music finished and the crowd broke up, the colour falling apart and reassembling in small groups, personality and individuality coming back into the room, and he looked about him, assessing the pros- pects. There were several very attrac- tive girls but they had men in attend- ance, hovering with a sort of belliger- ent pride in what they had, and he

was in no mood for competition to-   night. He wanted a girl and he wanted her without trouble.

Then he saw her. She sat against the wall of the room and yet some- how apart, interested and yet indif- ferent, blonde and in a frock that she wore tight as a second skin. He walked over, pushing through the groups, scraps of conversation brush- ing against him, the giggle of girls and the smug parrot-like remarks of the men, and sat down beside her. "Got the next one booked?"  

She faced him and he got a good look at her. He was glad he had come over; she had not spoken, had not accepted him, yet he was already seeing beyond the dance-hall, seeing what might come later, tasting her potentialities. She was blonde but Nature had been aided; her eyes were frank and with long lashes, the best feature in her round, slightly plump face; she was tall and big and high- breasted, her body alive and strong, vibrant in the tight green dress. The night should be interesting.

"No one's got it yet." Her voice was small and rough; it sounded as if she smoked too many cigarettes and yet there were no nicotine stains on her fingers.

"The name's Frankie. Frankie Brown." There was no point in too much publicity. He might as well become used to the idea that McCoy, for the time being, had gone into smoke with the doffing of the uniform; he would reappear when the provosts had tired of searching for him. "He's the one you're having the next dance

with."

The approach was slick and smooth as a visiting card dropped in her lap; it told her nothing about him but thal he had confidence in himself. She smiled, her well-painted lips open- ing round white even teeth, and her face had a sudden loveliness, trans- cending the cheap make-up, the flash dress. "All right. My name's Myra

Myra Neilson."

"It's a big moment in my life. Pleased to meet you."

(Continued To-morrow)  

Digitisation generously supported by
Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation
Digitisation generously supported by

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