No Sunlight Singing

This great Australia that our fathers won

In proud defiance of a thousand fates!

This ocean-garden sacred to the sun!

This land of home! This land where men are mates!

Drink to your native ranges and your plains,

Men with the sunlight singing in your veins!

The Toast of Honour


Book One, Chapter 1

BLOODSHOT and red-rimmed, like the eyes of its victims, the sun glowered red through a dust and heat haze as it dipped to the distant line of scrub—the inevitable horizon on the great plains of the Northern Territory. Harsh outlines softened a little by this rosy glow, the homestead buildings of Melville Downs Station sprawled untidily on the plain, two or three hundred yards from the outer bank of a creek.

Opposite the homestead, and taking advantage of landfalls, gullies, and any other natural aid, a track wound up from the creek bed. Still below the level of the plain, the track levelled off briefly as it turned from one gully to another. In this hollow, pulverized by years of wind and rain, and countless wheels and hoofs, several inches of dusty sand covered the track.

With the dust clinging to moist skins, their only clothing, three little girls squatted in the cutting toiling furiously, building not castles but stockyards.

Two of the girls, about seven and six years old, were black beneath the dust, and lean as whippets. The older one sat back on her heels at last, with her head on one side. ‘Ah, dat do. Now chay I ride lead an’ ring dem in.’

‘Oh, no,’ protested the third girl, of an age maybe midway between the others, but much more sturdily built, and with a skin that was only brown. ‘You always ride lead. Say I do it this time. Say you ride tail.’

‘No fear,’ shouted the older girl. ‘Chay you ride tail. Chay I ride lead. You no wheel ’em like me.’ With this she jumped to her feet and did a few darting leaps, to show how she would wheel the cattle.

The youngest had been struggling to get a word in. Now she almost shrieked: ‘What ’bout me? Chay me ride for one time.’

The oldest dropped down in the dust again. ‘You no ride. Chay you black gin. You light fire. Get irons hot.’

‘If I ride tail, then say I’m the boss,’ the brown girl said with an air of triumph. ‘I’ll tell you what to do.’

‘Oh,’ wailed the young one in the middle of this, ‘me neber ride. Me allus black gin.’

Suddenly two horsemen cantered round the bend, only two or three yards from the girls, who had been so engrossed in their argument that they had not noticed the approaching hoofbeats, muffled as they were by the inches of dust.

Three half-wild creatures jumped simultaneously. The two black girls scattered like rabbits over one bank of the cutting, as the two horses shied towards the other.

The brown girl, slower, owing to being heavier and less afraid, was just scrambling to the top as the riders steadied their horses. From one came an oath, and the snapping lash of a stock-whip which bit into the child’s buttock and almost literally lifted her screaming over the top.

‘How’s that for a snapshot, Peter, eh? I bet she won’t sit down for a week. That’ll teach the black bastards to make my horse shy.’

‘Yeh, Dick, you certainly chopped her. It was a pretty smart shot, considering,’ Peter said admiringly. ‘You probably took flesh as well as skin. But . . .’ He hesitated a while, and then went on. ‘I’m not so sure it was a good idea.’

‘What d’you mean?’ Dick swivelled in the saddle to look searchingly at the other man. ‘You don’t mean to tell me a man ain’t allowed to clip a black around here? One of the reasons I come here was that I heard the old man was a good man with the blacks. The last place I was at the boss was even payin’ ’em wages. An’ he screamed if you touched one—make you sick.’

‘Oh, the old man’s all right. Nobody can teach him much about handling a black, but this is different.’

By this time the two men had reached the homestead buildings. They dismounted and started to unsaddle. Peter, a stocky, homely faced man of about thirty-five, turned towards the manager’s house. ‘You must have seen the tasty brown piece that works up there. Yeh, see there, near the washing in the yard.’

Dick, a lanky, sun-dried fifty-odd, peered over his horse. ‘Oh, yeh, I’ve seen her.’

‘Well, she’s the old man’s pet stud, and that brat you chopped is hers. Now, he don’t care what you do to a black, normally, as long as you leave ’em fit for work, but nobody can interfere with his studs. Of course you’ve got an excuse, seeing you’ve only been here a few days, but if you take my tip you’ll get in first and tell him how it happened.’

‘Um, yes, I might do that. I ain’t too proud to admit when I’ve made a mistake, and it’s only natural a man don’t want nobody interfering with his stud.’

Meantime, the sobbing child had run along the bank of the creek to where, shielded from the sight of the homestead by the stockyard and some stunted scrub, lay the homes of the native workers.

From the steep rise of the creek bank the ground fanned out in a slight hollow. The scanty, grey-green foliage of the mean scrub that ringed the hollow and speckled its surface was all but hidden by a coating of dust: a fine, flour-like dust that deeply carpeted the hollow and spurted up eagerly at the least movement, to hang motionless in the breathless air, unable to rise more and unwilling to fall back. In the background a cloud of dust lay low over the stockyard and rolled lazily out to either side.

Close to the shallow banks of the hollow, more for moral support than for practical physical shelter, cringed the squalid dwellings of the black people. One home stood humbly erect to claim the title of hut, while a few crouched, well enough clad in bark and brush to warrant the name of mia-mia. For the rest there could be no name—a couple of rust-perforated curved sheets from a derelict galvanized-iron water-tank, similarly conditioned straight iron leaning against a bush, and even a couple of old bags spread over a low-lying branch of a bush. Such were the homes of the natives. At this hour the camp was almost deserted, but in the open space smouldering fires were being coaxed into life by a couple of old lubras who squatted on their heels in the dust, scrawny shanks showing like the big-knuckled fleshless legs of cranes.

The girl ran to the hut and clung to a grey-haired, wizened black woman who held her and tried to comfort her as she sobbed, ‘Mummy, Mummy, I want Mummy.’

‘Now, Mary, you can’t go to Mummy. She up at the house and you know you can’t go there. Show me what wrong.’

She whistled when she saw the deep weal that stretched right across one buttock and touched the other. ‘How that happen? I got some stuff take the soreness out. Lie down a minute.’

From a corner was produced a tin containing a weird-looking, evil-smelling mixture. As she knelt beside the child and dabbed some on the sore, a gasp and cry, and then gradual abatement of the sobbing, testified to its effect. Soon Mary told her story; how she had played with Liz and Jenny, and how the white men had come and whipped her for nothing.

‘That is not nothing, child. To get in the way of a white man is to seek trouble. I tell you again, as I tell you many times—keep away from where a white man is or where he may be.’

The hut was about six feet by eight, crudely made with a framework of bush timber fastened together, here with a bit of wire, there with string; and in a few places even nails had been used. Odd pieces of rusty iron formed the roof, which seemed likely to turn a fair part of any rain that might fall. The sides were covered with old bags, a bit too decrepit to be really effective. The earthen floor showed signs of the slops and spillings of years. In the two far corners of the hut lay small heaps of bags and old blankets. To the right of the doorway two forked sticks driven into the ground held a piece of packing-case to form a table; a little, old meat-safe swung from a rafter. On the table were two battered tin plates, two cracked and handleless cups, two empty jam-tins, and a kitchen knife without a handle, while near the door stood a blackened billy-can and a kerosene-tin full of water. A bundle of spears tucked in the rafters was the only other furnishing.

Mary, having got over the shock of her hurt, began to think of her stomach. ‘Betty, when’s Johnny coming with the meat? He’s killing tonight, isn’t he?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ said Betty. ‘Look yourself. If the others come with meat, you know Johnny must be finished killing and will soon be here. Wipe your face. You don’t want the men to know you cried just because you got whipped.’

A grimy hand wiped a grimy face and Mary started to run outside. Started, but stopped when the first quick step brought urgent reminder of her injury. From there she moved slowly and with care. ‘Oh, Betty, all the people are coming back. There’s Johnny coming too. I’ll go meet him and see what he has for me.’

All the camp was abuzz with excitement. This was the big night, when there was enough meat for everyone. Of course, they got issues at other times, but never enough to go round. Occasionally some of the men would bring in a kangaroo, snake, or lizard, but the night a bullock was killed was the only time of plenty. The offal and scraps were theirs and Johnny usually managed to get more than that for the camp, as the white butcher was generally too lazy even to supervise the kill properly.

So now as they streamed along, thin black legs poking through ragged skirts or trousers, a piece of liver or lights or a bunch of guts was swinging from everyone’s hand.

Johnny, the one-time great hunter, now had only the substitute pleasure of filching from the white man a little more meat to share with the camp. He came along behind the rest, a greying, gnarled, and knotty black Hercules. But, up close, it could be seen that the smoky eyes stared vacantly under battered brows.

Mary forgot her sore after a time and ran the last few yards to Johnny. When she reached him she turned shyly to walk close by his side. Johnny’s huge hand reached out to touch her hair tenderly. Gruffly, ashamed of showing affection, he said: ‘Here, child, a piece of kidney. You can eat it now, I have more to cook.’ Gravely she accepted the usual titbit, and gravely thanked him. Then she relaxed and chewed ravenously.

Paddy overtook them before they reached the hut. Young, his complexion showed signs of some white ancestry, but his features and lithe, sinewy frame were unmistakably of the black race. He looked down at his stepdaughter. ‘What happened? You limp.’

Mary hung her head and mumbled through a mouthful of raw kidney. ‘I got in the way of the white man.’ She turned her rump briefly to the men.

A long-drawn ‘Oh!’ from both.

Then Paddy demanded, ‘Which white man?’

‘The new one.’

The men looked at each other. Johnny’s eyes had lost their vacant expression; they glared, and his face was contorted. Paddy laid his hand on the other’s arm. ‘It’s no use, there’s nothing you can do.’ Gradually, like a lamp fading when the oil is spent, the light in his eyes died. He was once again the broken man.

By the time they reached their hut, a dozen little fires were burning throughout the camp, with the lubras squatting over them and the children hovering close. Johnny and Paddy dropped down on their haunches by the hut while Betty took the meat to cook. Not much time was wasted in cooking. A woman would squat down at a fire, put a piece of meat on a couple of green sticks over the coals, singe it a bit, turn it, to singe the other side, then it was ready for eating. Meat was too scarce for much of it to be wasted in the fire, and tonight everyone was too hungry to wait long. Some of the families still clung to old practices; the men ate first and the women and children had to wait and get what was left, but most of the people had dropped this along with other tribal customs, and they ate together like the whites.

Polly arrived as Betty was coming back to the hut with a plateful of meat. Neat and tidy in a clean, summerweight dress that clung tightly, emphasizing full breasts and well-rounded hips and legs, she looked out of place in this squalid camp. Twenty-one years of age, she had the brown complexion of the half-caste. In her oval face, with its straight nose and lovely brown eyes, the only legacy of her mother’s people was a slight prominence of the cheekbones and fullness of the nostrils.

Polly handed Betty a newspaper-wrapped parcel. ‘Here’s some old damper and scones. I’ll change this dress so’s not to get it dirty. I don’t have to go back tonight; the Pig is going out. I think I can hear the car now.’

She hurried into the hut, to reappear a minute later, more in keeping with the surroundings. Her hair was tousled, and she wore an old dress so shapeless as to disguise her form, but so torn as to reveal most of it whenever she moved. Mary was swept up into her arms with an ‘Oh, darling, I’ve missed you.’ But as her arm went around the child an ear-piercing yell nearly made Polly drop her.

‘What’s wrong, what did I do?’ she said as she lowered the child to the ground.

Sobbing bitterly, Mary turned round and showed her injury. Polly fell on her knees and hugged her. Looking up at the others, she demanded, her eyes almost sending out sparks, ‘Who did this?’

Betty laid the damper on the other plate, and put it and the meat near the men where they squatted by the wall. Taking a piece herself, she munched as she told what she knew of the incident.

Polly flared up. ‘That trash! I’ll fix him. Smires may be a pig but he’ll still do some things for me. Oh, honey, fancy doing that to you!’

The two men said nothing but chewed away steadily. Betty ate on for a while till Mary quieted down and pushed away from her mother to get something to eat. Then: ‘Maybe you better not ask too much of your Mr. Smires. Soon he not want you, anyway. You better coax him for a time if you want the extra food for your Mary.’

‘What do you mean?’ snapped Polly. ‘The big Pig not want me? I can handle him.’

‘Yes,’ said Betty, ‘he want you now, but soon your belly—pouf.’ She made a circular movement with her hand. ‘You think he want you then?’

Polly, silent for a while, muttered: ‘Always the same. They do what they like. Why do we let them?’

Neither of the men gave a sign of having heard, but Betty answered. ‘Nothing can be done. There are too many white men. You can’t kill them all. This might be good for Mary. Teach her to keep away from whites.’

By the time the meal was finished the short tropical dusk was turning to darkness, a silvery darkness lit by a full moon. The magic of the moonlight transformed the squalid, dusty, fly-haunted camp into an almost romantic-looking collection of rustic dwellings nestling among the bushes. Under the influence of full stomachs and the protective darkness the people themselves were transformed. Those who, in the last hour of daylight, were hungry, suppressed members of a subject race living fearfully in the shadow of white domination, became now, in the first hour of darkness, the happy, carefree, laughing and chattering people they were born to be.

Johnny and Betty went over to the outskirts of the camp to talk to some new arrivals, a couple of families who had come from up north in Johnny’s country. As usual he wanted to question them about the track, the water-holes, and the game, always with the vague unformulated hope that some day he might travel that track again.

Paddy went over to where the flare of a fire showed five people squatting in a circle. From time to time they bent forward simultaneously in earnest contemplation, while behind them others gathered, peering intently over their shoulders. Of the inner devotees, all black as night, two men and a woman were youngish, about the age of Paddy, and the other two were old, toothless crones.

At a closer view the mystery of the concentration was solved. A tattered, frayed, and greasy pack of cards was being dealt out in hands of five. One of the old crones looked up. ‘Ho, Paddy, set in. We wan’um new blood, suck ’im dry!’

As everyone looked up and grinned, Paddy waved a hand and squatted down where room was made for him, between the two old women. ‘Here’s what you bin wan’um,’ he said, laughing and holding out a plug of nicki-nicki. ‘I bin wake-up alonga you, Maggie.’

Wearing a filthy and tattered remnant of a dress, Maggie, an animated black skeleton, could be any age from seventy upwards. But her eyes, although watery and red-rimmed, had a lively and impudent glint.

The game was played to the accompaniment of a medley of lively chattering. Their own native tongue was used much of the time, but some were station-born and not too glib in this, so, for the purpose of the game, pidgin had to be used.

‘No kangaroo this time, Paddy?’ asked the dealer. ‘Pick’um up cards, Maggie, we bin play’um poker. You bin bust’um pipe d’reckly, push’um baccy like that.’

‘Gimme t’ree ace.’

‘Gimme big pair, make’um full.’

‘No t’anks,’ said Maggie, ‘got’um full-hand now.’

‘Three,’ said Paddy. ‘Saw plenty kangaroo near forty-mile water-hole—poor though. But white man keep too busy, no time to get any.’

Three hands went in the discard, but betting became brisk over the other three. Soon there was half a stick of nicki-nicki, a knife with half a blade, some tea wrapped in newspaper, sundry odds and ends, and even some coins in the centre. Finally came the showdown; the young lubra had two pair, but the dealer topped her with kings-up, and reached out for the centre.

‘Here,’ screeched Maggie, ‘me got Lord Nelson.’

‘Lord Nelson!’ said the young lubra. ‘What’n hell Lord Nelson?’ ‘See,’ squawked Maggie, as she threw down three aces. ‘T’ree ones: one eye, one arm, one—heh! heh!’

The peace of the night was suddenly rent, and the laughing and chattering of the card players drowned by an argument from the bottom end of the camp. A man’s voice thick with liquor: ‘. . . time to come home. Where my tea?’

A woman’s voice in shrill reply. ‘I just finished work up at the house, while you rotten with metho.’

‘You just finish work? You get food for white man. What ’bout food for me, your husban’? I teach you who boss.’

Then came a hubbub—the sound of blows, shrieks, and wailings.

After the first shock everyone in the camp carried on and pretended not to notice anything. All but Maggie who, in the way of old hags of all colours the world over, had to have her say. ‘Tommy get the metho; Annie get the whacko; heh! heh!’

The play seesawed, luck favouring first one and then another, but even if anyone had a bad trot and went broke it made no difference. The others would always chip in and stake the loser to a new start. They played hard and keenly, but it was more for the sake of the game than for profit.

Obviously a newcomer to the game, the young lubra was having beginner’s luck. She beat Paddy when he held a full hand. ‘Cri’, I think you bin chased by Chinaman,’ he said.

‘You no see her little piccaninny,’ chortled Maggie. ‘I t’ink she bloody well bin caught.’

This unexpected night off was a great treat for Polly. Most of the time she hardly saw Mary except in bed. Under the gimlet eye of the hatchet-faced housekeeper, Mrs. Conley, the ordinary work at the homestead was a solid grind. From daylight till after the white folk had finished dinner at night Polly and a couple of other coloured girls were kept so hard at it that they could rarely find time to sneak down to the camp to see how the children were getting on.

Besides this, almost every night Smires kept Polly back. Some nights she would satisfy him and get away by eleven or twelve o’clock. Other nights, when he was drinking or just in a sadistic mood, she would limp away, sore and bruised, in the early hours of the morning, to try to get an hour or two’s sleep before going back to work. What made her maddest of all was that even if he didn’t want her he would keep her hanging about for hours before telling her to go.

The best time for her was during her monthly period. It was almost like a holiday for her. One of her great problems now was how to keep from him the knowledge that her periods no longer occurred.

Polly was a product of a home that was a little strange even by Territory standards. Her father had been an English aristocrat, and her mother a plain and simple black woman—this was not very unusual, but her father’s conduct of the family affairs was distinctly out of the ordinary.

Having drifted into the Territory, and set up house out in the scrub with his woman, he had ceased to take interest in anything except the education of his daughter. On his periodical trips to town to draw his remittance and buy stores, he acted quite normally. He invariably went on a bender that lasted until he had to strap up his stores against the next remittance, but he would not take any grog home with him, or allow anyone else to take any into the camp.

Polly being the only child who survived the frequent confinements of her mother, who died while she was quite young, her father’s efforts were all devoted to one task—the education of his daughter. He refused to let her learn anything from the blacks, and worked persistently to give her just such an education as he himself had had.

His persistence was rewarded; the net result being that the girl spoke with a cultured English accent.

Then he passed on, to the lamentation of all who knew him—‘He wasn’t a bad poor bastard. Fill ’em up again, barman!’—leaving Polly, not his remittance, as that died with him, but with the priceless asset to a coloured girl in a tough country—a cultured English accent.

The conversation in this household was a strange mixture. Johnny and Betty preferred to speak in their own language. Paddy was more at home with pidgin English, having been born and bred in the cattle country, but he could talk with Johnny and Betty in their language. Polly spoke little but English though she could understand what the others were saying. Mary, whose father had been a white miner, had learnt English from her mother, the language of the blacks from Betty and pidgin from all about her.

As Polly led Mary into the hut and started to spread a blanket on the floor, Mary hugged her round the legs. ‘Mummy, I don’t have to go to bed, do I? I want to talk to you.’

‘No, dear,’ replied Polly, ‘but it would be better to lie down and rest, wouldn’t it? I’m tired!’

‘Ooh, yes, lie down together and talk.’ Then, as they snuggled down on the blanket: ‘Mummy, why do you have to stay out so late at night? When Paddy’s here it’s not good, but when he’s away I get frightened.’

‘But, dear, you have Betty and Johnny.’

‘Mummy, Johnny frightens me. He shouts in his sleep and swings about and groans awfully.’

‘You know, dear, that Johnny won’t hurt you. He has terrible pains; when he’s awake he won’t let anyone know, but when he’s asleep he can’t help groaning. The white men hurt him badly years ago.’

‘Mmmmm; it’s all right when you’re here or when it’s light, but in the dark and when I’m alone it’s different.’

‘Yes, dear, I know I leave you alone an awful lot, and I’m sorry, but I can’t help it. You see, up at the house they stay up late, Mr. Smires, Mrs. Conley, and the others. Mummy has to stay to get them food, clean up, and so on.’

‘Mummy, why does Betty always tell me to keep away from white men?’

‘You know what happened today. You’re always likely to get hurt near a white man.’

‘But Liz goes up to see some of the white men and she gets lots of nice things.’

‘She gets lots of nasty things too. Many a time she gets a smack in the ear, and d’you remember the time the stranger’s dog went for her, and all the white men just cheered and laughed as she raced home with the dog snapping at her? The dog didn’t bite her, but the men wouldn’t have cared if it had. What Betty says is right. “You’ll get hurt if you go near white men.” ’

Polly was about to continue when an interruption came. There was a whisper at the door. ‘Are you there, Polly?’

Polly got up and went to the door. ‘Hello, Annie, what’s wrong?’

‘You hear the row. Tommy on the metho again. He make a stock-whip for the head-stockman, Al. Al promise him ten shillings. He work long, long time making it good. Then Al give him no money, give him metho. Look at me.’

‘Oh, your face, it’s all cut and swollen. I’ll get some of Betty’s salve.’

‘My body too cut and swollen, but that nothing. Look at the dress, my house dress. I didn’t have time to change.’

Annie was a comely woman in the early twenties, darker than Polly and of a native cast of features. Now her face was bruised all down one side, with a cut over the cheekbone, and her dress hung loose from a tear stretching from the neck to the waist.

‘How I wear this tomorrow? You know Mrs. Conley tell me if I come in a torn or dirty dress again she put me out of the house. Oh, Polly, I can’t lose that job. Jenny and Liz don’t get enough to eat now. How I feed them if I leave the house?’

‘Don’t worry,’ said Polly. ‘Pull your dress down and show me your bruises and I’ll rub some of this on. It will take the soreness out. I have a second dress up at the house, it’s fairly clean. We’ll go up early in the morning and you can put it on before Mrs. Conley sees you.

‘Now you’d better take that one off and leave it here till Tommy gets right again. We’ll probably be able to sew it up in the daylight.’

Annie did as suggested, and soon she was sneaking quietly back home, eased in mind and soothed in body.

The novel No Sunlight Singing is Copyright © Joe Walker 1960.

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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