The tide was out; the beach was deserted; lazily flopped the warm sea. The sun beat down, beat down hot and fiery on the fine sand, baking the grey and blue and black and white-veined pebbles. It sucked up the little drop of water that lay in the hollow of the curved shells; it bleached the pink convolvulus that threaded through and through the sand-hills. Nothing seemed to move but the small sand-hoppers. Pit-pit-pit! They were never still.
Over there on the weed-hung rocks that looked at low tide like shaggy beasts come down to the water to drink, the sunlight seemed to spin like a silver coin dropped into each of the small rock pools. They danced, they quivered, and minute ripples laved the porous shores. Looking down, bending over, each pool was like a lake with pink and blue houses clustered on the shores; and oh! the vast mountainous country behind those houses—the ravines, the passes, the dangerous creeks and fearful tracks that led to the water's edge. Underneath waved the sea-forest—pink thread-like trees, velvet anemones, and orange berry-spotted weeds. Now a stone on the bottom moved, rocked, and there was a glimpse of a black feeler; now a thread-like creature wavered by and was lost. Something was happening to the pink, waving trees; they were changing to a cold moonlight blue. And now there sounded the faintest "plop." Who made that sound? What was going on down there? And how strong, how damp the seaweed smelt in the hot sun...
The green blinds were drawn in the bungalows of the summer colony. Over the verandas, prone on the paddock, flung over the fences, there were exhausted-looking bathing-dresses and rough striped towels. Each back window seemed to have a pair of sand-shoes on the sill and some lumps of rock or a bucket or a collection of pawa shells. The bush quivered in a haze of heat; the sandy road was empty except for the Trouts' dog Snooker, who lay stretched in the very middle of it. His blue eye was turned up, his legs stuck out stiffly, and he gave an occasional desperate-sounding puff, as much as to say he had decided to make an end of it and was only waiting for some kind cart to come along.
"What are you looking at, my grandma? Why do you keep stopping and sort of staring at the wall?"
Kezia and her grandmother were taking their siesta together. The little girl, wearing only her short drawers and her under-bodice, her arms and legs bare, lay on one of the puffed-up pillows of her grandma's bed, and the old woman, in a white ruffled dressing-gown, sat in a rocker at the window, with a long piece of pink knitting in her lap. This room that they shared, like the other rooms of the bungalow, was of light varnished wood and the floor was bare. The furniture was of the shabbiest, the simplest. The dressing-table, for instance, was a packing-case in a sprigged muslin petticoat, and the mirror above was very strange; it was as though a little piece of forked lightning was imprisoned in it. On the table there stood a jar of sea-pinks, pressed so tightly together they looked more like a velvet pincushion, and a special shell which Kezia had given her grandma for a pin-tray, and another even more special which she had thought would make a very nice place for a watch to curl up in.
"Tell me, grandma," said Kezia.
The old woman sighed, whipped the wool twice round her thumb, and drew the bone needle through. She was casting on.
"I was thinking of your Uncle William, darling," she said quietly.
"My Australian Uncle William?" said Kezia. She had another.
"Yes, of course."
"The one I never saw?"
"That was the one."
"Well, what happened to him?" Kezia knew perfectly well, but she wanted to be told again.
"He went to the mines, and he got a sunstroke there and died," said old Mrs. Fairfield.
Kezia blinked and considered the picture again... a little man fallen over like a tin soldier by the side of a big black hole.
"Does it make you sad to think about him, grandma?" She hated her grandma to be sad.
It was the old woman's turn to consider. Did it make her sad? To look back, back. To stare down the years, as Kezia had seen her doing. To look after them as a woman does, long after they were out of sight. Did it make her sad? No, life was like that.
"But why?" asked Kezia. She lifted one bare arm and began to draw things in the air. "Why did Uncle William have to die? He wasn't old."
Mrs. Fairfield began counting the stitches in threes. "It just happened," she said in an absorbed voice.
"Does everybody have to die?" asked Kezia.
"Me?" Kezia sounded fearfully incredulous.
"Some day, my darling."
"But, grandma." Kezia waved her left leg and waggled the toes. They felt sandy. "What if I just won't?"
The old woman sighed again and drew a long thread from the ball.
"We're not asked, Kezia," she said sadly. "It happens to all of us sooner or later."
Kezia lay still thinking this over. She didn't want to die. It meant she would have to leave here, leave everywhere, for ever, leave—leave her grandma. She rolled over quickly.
"Grandma," she said in a startled voice.
"What, my pet!"
"You're not to die." Kezia was very decided.
"Ah, Kezia"—her grandma looked up and smiled and shook her head—"don't let's talk about it."
"But you're not to. You couldn't leave me. You couldn't not be there." This was awful. "Promise me you won't ever do it, grandma," pleaded Kezia.
The old woman went on knitting.
"Promise me! Say never!"
But still her grandma was silent.
Kezia rolled off her bed; she couldn't bear it any longer, and lightly she leapt on to her grandma's knees, clasped her hands round the old woman's throat and began kissing her, under the chin, behind the ear, and blowing down her neck.
"Say never... say never... say never—" She gasped between the kisses. And then she began, very softly and lightly, to tickle her grandma.
"Kezia!" The old woman dropped her knitting. She swung back in the rocker. She began to tickle Kezia. "Say never, say never, say never," gurgled Kezia, while they lay there laughing in each other's arms. "Come, that's enough, my squirrel! That's enough, my wild pony!" said old Mrs. Fairfield, setting her cap straight. "Pick up my knitting."
Both of them had forgotten what the "never" was about.