How Many Camels?

I
How many camels will you take for your daughter?
Not such an unusual question in the Gulf perhaps, but on the deck of a
large passenger ship bound from Genoa for Fremantle, it takes Herbert
unprepared.
I will give you ten camels. What do you say – ten camels for your daughter here?
The man indicates the elder of the two girls.
Herbert looks at his girls. He looks and sees Helenka, his firstborn,
an elf flitting and dipping at will as she plays with Masha, who is
not yet ten. They are playing with their dolls.
At this lull in adult conversation, Helenka looks up. She sees no sign
that she is the subject of the stalled conversation – nor an object.
She takes Masha’s hand and pulls her across the deck to play
hopscotch.
The stranger is watching too. His appraising eye follows the movement
of the elf as she leaps and glides at hopscotch. He sees slim legs
flashing, a hint of fulness at the hips. He looks at the child – a
question still unasked, sees womanhood – a trader’s answer.
The stranger takes Herbert’s silence as rejection of an insufficient
offer. He speaks again: Twenty camels then. What do you say to twenty?

II
In his little dress shop, Herbert is in the clothing trade. Fort
Street, Fremantle is not a chic address, but his clientele is worldly
enough – they come from all corners of the world: in the course of
their escape to Australia, to Fremantle, they have seen the worst of
the world.
Worldly – and fussy too. Never mind the quality, is it cheap? Never
mind style, what’s the price?
But Herbert is worldly too. He understands that his heavy accent is
not a marketing advantage, but that a pretty face and a winning manner
might be.
His older daughter is worth twenty camels: this is Helenka whose face
might have launched so many ships of the desert. So, every day, after
school finishes and on Saturdays, Helenka works as a marketing
advantage in the clothing trade.

III
A couple comes into the shop. The lady has little English, has brought
her man as interpreter. They converse in a Slavic language, which the
marketing advantage happens to comprehend. Helenka shows a seemingly
intuitive understanding of the lady’s needs and her budget. She
selects and shows the lady dresses which cost no more than she is able
to pay. No more, but scarcely a penny less. The lady makes her
purchase and is content. Her bored interpreter notices the imminent
woman inside the child’s school uniform, and loses his languid air.
The child is the only person in attendance and his hungry eyes take it
all in.
A week later, the couple returns to the shop, this time as last time,
well after school closes. The lady needs her new dress altered, which
is quickly arranged. Hungry Eyes is not quickly ready to leave,
however. He chooses dresses, brings them to the young shopgirl, makes
slow enquiries, appears very interested but makes no purchases. He
says he will think about it.
I come again back, he says.

IV
Here in Australia, people are slow and casual. Herbert and Alida are
intense and restless. After a short time, they open a second shop,
this one in Station Street, Fremantle. They still live above the Fort
Street shop. Alida has newly-arrived cousins, fresh from Europe. They
have no home and no income. Alida and Herbert install them above the
second shop, where there is sufficient space for the cousins to live,
and to sew dresses for the shops. Now the newcomers have both a home
and a business.
Freda runs the Station Street shop and it consumes her.
Herbert is an early riser. Each morning he practises yoga, standing on
his head for up to an hour at a time. During this time, his scrotum is
suspended upside down, practically weightless. At all other times, he
feels its full weight and urgency. As soon as Helenka returns from
school, she takes over in the shop from Herbert and he is free to go
elsewhere and attend to his urgency.
And above the shop, Helenka’s mother, back from Station Street,
mothers Masha, washes and cleans, and cooks for two households. Soon,
more cousins arrive in Fremantle, then more, washed ashore, wave upon
wave, generated by the after shocks of Europe. Alida helps them all,
feeding as many as will come and eat.
At such times, Helenka is alone in the shop. She is alone when – true
to his word – Hungry Eyes comes again back.
He asks for an item of apparel which cannot be found on the racks in
the showroom. Helen says she’ll go and look for the item in the
stockroom. She is taken by surprise when Hungry Eyes follows her
there. She turns to explain that he can wait in the shop – she will
bring it, but he moves forward, keeps on moving until he has backed
her against the back wall. She discovers then, as his body rubs
against hers, upwards, downwards, forwards and backwards, that he is
just like her violin teacher back in Hamburg: he is a rubber. At least
he is not like her French teacher, not a feeler.
She is not surprised when the rubbing abruptly stops, nor by his
moments of gasping, nor by his rapid retreat with that funny gait.
And she is not surprised when he comes again back, again.
For his part, Hungry Eyes is most surprised by the large Alsatian in
the stockroom, which Helen has borrowed from the Greek boy next door.
And when the Alsatian snarls and bares large fangs at him, Hungry Eyes
runs, with very efficient gait, from the shop and does not return.

V
Helenka keeps secret the peculiar behaviour of these men. It is
confusing how they seem to like her too much when she is alone but
will not meet her eyes when her parents are present. What could be a
good feeling is spoiled by bad feelings. She feels bad. She felt this
sort of bad when she watched the Brownshirts beating her cousin. She
wet herself then. She hid away her wet things and washed them in
secret and remained silent.
When the pains come, then the blood, she has another secret thing to
hide. But Rae finds her clutching her belly, and Rae understands
instantly. Rae is from Melbourne. She is practically Australian and
much younger than Alida. She knows about things, Australian things
like periods, that Helenka’s mother does not.
Rae shows her what to put on and how to do it. She shows Helenka where
she can buy the pads. Apparently Helenka has a problem that will
happen again but it is quite common in Australia. Rae gets it too.

VI
School ends. After all, Helenka is fourteen. A grown girl who can sell
has no place in school. A grown girl who is pretty is a bonus in a
dress shop. She is like attractive wrapping. When they buy, customers
imagine themselves looking like Helenka.

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