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...
(The entire section is 1,098 words.)