Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1098
Ella and Royal Natwick, having retired to a small bungalow along Parramatta Road, a decaying suburb of Sydney, are spectators of the modern, industrial world that passes by them. Their chief summer activity is watching the traffic each day from their porch. Royal, a belligerent, insensitive invalid, is confined to...
(The entire section contains 1098 words.)
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Ella and Royal Natwick, having retired to a small bungalow along Parramatta Road, a decaying suburb of Sydney, are spectators of the modern, industrial world that passes by them. Their chief summer activity is watching the traffic each day from their porch. Royal, a belligerent, insensitive invalid, is confined to a wheelchair; Ella, his lifelong devoted mate, dotes on him, suppressing any display of emotion that might upset him. As they watch one of the frequent traffic jams, Royal singles out for ridicule a man driving a pink-and-brown Holden: The car’s color betrays masculinity, and the man’s head appears deformed. Ella, without directly challenging Royal, suggests that the man may have a domineering wife and notes that the man passes each day at five-twenty, suggesting that he may be a business executive. That comment brings further slander from Royal, who complains ironically about the lack of achievement by white-collar workers: His own life has been a failure to achieve the status that he now belittles.
One evening, Ella assists the victim of a traffic accident in front of their house. Royal, indifferent to the tragedy of others, worries only about how Ella will wash the blood out of blankets that she has provided; in response, she kisses him on the forehead, immediately regretting her public display of affection for underscoring his powerlessness in the chair. Royal’s only concerns are what he is to eat, his illusion of superiority over Ella, her proper care for him, and the habitual flow of traffic, in which Ella always notes “that gentleman . . . in the Holden.”
Amid their evening recollections, the omniscient narrator provides fragmented flashbacks over the course of the Natwicks’ lives. Royal’s family settled in Australia from Kent, and the young Ella McWhirter liked to think that there was a hint of English royalty in those Natwicks who came to New South Wales. Royal’s ambitions surpassed those of his bookkeeper father, but he never made them fruitful despite a series of moves from one town to another, until finally settling in Sydney. Ella has always been subservient to Royal, and, at Fulbrook, she worked as a waitress, nurturing both their savings account and Royal’s deluded self-image as a successful businessman. In Sarsaparilla, an outer suburb of Sydney where Royal opened a grocery store, she postponed having a child at Royal’s admonishment that starting a new business would not be compatible with starting a new family. Throughout those years Ella defended Royal from customers’ complaints and continued her devotion to him. Ignoring a doctor’s implicit suggestion that Royal might be impotent, Ella accepted the failure to conceive as her own shortcoming, quietly brooding over “her secret grief.”
On the Natwicks’ retirement, Ella turns her energies to caring for the garden, the house, and Royal’s increasingly deteriorating health. With a hernia, heart trouble, and arthritis, Royal becomes incontinent and confined to the wheelchair. The traffic jams, the air pollution, and the man in the pink-and-brown Holden become their only mutual diversions from drab routine. Indeed, when the man does not drive by for a few days, there is almost a crisis for the Natwicks: “Nothing would halt the traffic, not sickness, not death even.” Before he resumes his five-twenty schedule in a new, cream-colored Holden, Ella dreams that she meets the man in her garden, a dream that she does not share fully with Royal. Having repressed her sensuality and her desire for affection for a lifetime, Ella is hardly conscious of her increasing obsession with seeing the man pass by. In a second dream, she drops a double-yoked egg, breaking it on the path in her tunnel of cinerarias in the garden. Only these dreams disrupt the monotony of Ella’s life.
Royal’s death in early autumn deprives Ella of an object for her devotion. She withdraws into herself; Royal had been all-consuming of her emotions: the “feeling part of her had been removed.” She remains compulsive about seeing the man in the Holden pass each evening, but she becomes indifferent to the care of her garden and her house, spending much of the autumn and winter sorting reflectively through a box of keepsakes and changing daily the water in a tumbler that holds Royal’s dentures. The traffic and the cinerarias—head-high blossoms of purple, blue, and wine spires—occupy her most devoted attention.
One late winter evening, Ella is walking among the cinerarias when the man in the Holden appears in her garden, asking to use the telephone because of car trouble. She notices that he has a harelip, a deformity that earlier had repulsed her, and that “his eyes, she dared to think, were filled with kindness.” Waiting for the tow truck, Ella becomes suddenly exuberant, bragging about her garden, laughing and showing off her cinerarias. As she begins to tell him about them, she “switched to another language,” seemingly inarticulate in an “almost formless agonized sound.” In response, the man seeks to comfort her, and as they embrace, Ella kisses him, “as though she might never succeed in healing all the wounds they had ever suffered.” Before he departs, Ella has invited him for coffee the next evening.
Ella’s preparations for her meeting occupy her entire day. She learns how to brew coffee from Mrs. Dolan, her neighbor. She spends a considerable part of the day shopping for cosmetics and applying them, but she removes them when she appears to herself to be mirroring a purple cineraria. She considers hiding Royal’s teeth but decides against it. Having made the coffee early, she waits on the porch. When a traffic accident occurs, she remembers helping once before but decides to “save herself up” on this evening. She chats with Mrs. Dolan, but she cannot repress her “lust” for kindness, intensified by the man’s late arrival. She realizes that the man does not know that she has measured her life in the passing of his car, and she retires to the garden to walk among the cinerarias. Then she hears him coming into the garden.
Immediately Ella senses that he is sick; his voice fades, and he falters. When she reaches him, she begins mumbling pet names, supporting him in the throes of a heart attack. In her frantic desperation, she tells him that she loves him, even as he slips from her arms to the ground. She covers the dying man with her kisses. Without knowing him or even his name, Ella concludes that “she must have killed him by loving too deeply, and too adulterously.”