No Sunlight Singing

Book One, Chapter 5

Two days they rested and ate, then they moved on again. The going was fairly easy, the longest stretch between waters being a day and a half. But it was fortunate they had eaten up well at the bore and carried a good supply of tucker with them as they found little on the way. The last stretch into Margaret was a tough one. It was a long day’s walk and all they had between them to eat was a couple of tiny lizards. So it was a tired and hungry band that came to the outskirts of the town as the sun went down.

It was a sun-baked, discouraged-looking town, with wide dusty streets, a scattering of low-built, blistering, weather­board houses and a few dusty trees. As they came in sight of the town, they hesitated before stepping warily across twin ribbons of steel that stretched across one end of it, shining bright and mysterious in the last rays of sunlight. Flanked by huts and sheds and a little railway station, the gleaming lines twinkled away to where a dark line of foliage crossed them at the far end of the town. Trees and bushes, some with only the tops poking above ground level, marked the line of the river bed. At the junction of the rails and the river, standing out stark against the fiery skyline, a huge red water-tank provided a striking landmark for the town and a blatant reason for its existence.

Glancing along the street fronting the railway line, the eye of a weary white traveller would have lit up at the sight of the false fronts betokening hotels and stores. To this small band, the depressed little township represented a huge stronghold of an enemy people. Treating it as such, they skirted it widely and warily on the side opposite the river, which they aimed to reach a mile or so higher up. Now as they trudged through the powdery dust their throats burned more fiercely, but legs gained new strength from anticipation of water and rest.

As the daylight faded, they dipped over the river bank and, as at the wave of a magic wand, entered another world. Behind them the thirst and atmosphere of death and desolation; here was the scent of water and green, growing things.

A hollow in the river bank was walled and roofed with bushes and trees, while the dull gleam of water showed faintly below. The greenery was not the stunted scrub of the dry lands, with hardly two leaves to rub together, but massive, full-foliaged trees that sprang from below and bent solicitously over, so that anyone on the ledge gazed intimately into the cool recesses of their upper branches.

Cosily built with bits of this and that, some old iron, some bags and sheets of bark, a mia-mia hugged the bank. In front of it squatted a middle-aged black man and two lubras, one fairly old, the other much younger. Three or four mongrel dogs raced out yapping to greet the newcomers, and five or six children jumped up and clustered together shyly.

The man looked up, assessed the arrivals, and waved his hand to the fire. ‘Sit.’ Then, to the lubras, ‘Bring water!’

When all had had a drink, he said, ‘You come long way, which way?’

Paddy pointed with his chin. ‘That-a-way, Melville Downs.’ ‘Ooh, tough track. Bad time go walkabout.’

‘No can help, boss say go.’

A shake of the head. ‘Aah. You no got tucker?’

‘No,’ said Paddy, ‘mebbeso get some in town.’

‘You got plenty money? No? You get nothing in this town. Get put in gaol, mebbe. Nancy, get tucker.’

The young lubra got up. ‘But what—’ she began.

‘Shut up, you talk too much, get’m tucker.’ Then, as some of the visitors started to protest: ‘We got plenty tucker. You no get nothing tonight, mebbeso you get some tomorra.’

Nancy arrived with a half kerosene tin holding a modest portion of watery stew. This she placed before the visitors to whom she gave a tin pannikin and a spoon. Then she went away and came back with a piece of stale loaf. Everybody was silent as the tin was being passed around, the kids in the background craning forward to see their breakfast disappearing. At last all was cleaned up, and the children relaxed and crept into the mia-mia, no doubt to dream of fat stewpots.

Save for the fitful light of the tiny camp-fire, the hollow was now in pitch darkness; not the oppressive all-enveloping gloom of a closed room, but the velvety soft, caressing darkness of outdoors, relieved at the edges by the phosphorescent glow of tropical starlight that softly bathed the outside world.

As they all squatted down around the fire and silence reigned for a moment, the only sound was the buzzing of mosquitoes. In the flickering light of the minute flames the middle-aged man and woman showed as typical natives of the north, with spindly limbs and wide, coal-black faces, broad, mobile lips, and soft brown eyes, normally sorrowful but capable of changing in an instant to gleaming mirth.

Nancy’s face, shining black but straight of feature, her slightly frizzy hair and compact frame all spoke of an ancestor from north of the mainland. It was hard to judge her dominant mood as her face was seldom still, and her eyes gleamed and sparkled as fast as a signaller’s light.

As everybody settled down, the man said, ‘Sorry no gottem baccy, bin forgettem.’

Nancy jumped up. ‘Ah,’ she said triumphantly, ‘me gottem.’ From a capacious pocket in her tattered dress she produced a tin half-full of cigarette-butts and a piece of newspaper. Johnny and Paddy declined, but Betty joined her hosts in rolling a fumigator. Soon the four of them were blowing smoke and flames like miniature dragons.

‘Where you go?’ asked the host, Bobby.

‘Back to our people,’ said Johnny. He twisted his head and jutted his chin out towards the north. ‘You know the track? Any water?’ he asked.

Bobby spat at the fire and shook his head. ‘I not know. Long time I been here. But people say it not bad that way as way you come.’

Polly blinked as the smoke stung her eyes. She was sitting on the smoky side of the fire to keep the mosquitoes away from Mary. The child was coiled up, already sound asleep, her head on her mother’s lap.

‘Where you bin go?’ Nancy asked her, hastily dropping the last bit of her cigarette as the paper smouldered back to her fingers. ‘You bin go longs Johnny?’

‘I don’t know. I want to stay near the whites,’ said Polly, ‘so Mary can learn their ways. I had thought that we might get work here or in Darwin. Do you know if there is any chance?’

Nancy shook her head. ‘Dunno about Darwin, some people tell us it no good, some people say orright. But here not much damn’ good.’

‘But you get work here?’

Nancy laughed mirthlessly. ‘We get work orright but nothing money catch’m,’ she said. ‘Me work for woman got board’n house, feeds white men. Me all time wash’m cloes, wash’m dishes, wash’m pots, wash’m floors. Get’m bita tucker, bita ole cloes, nothing catch’m money. Missus say she pay Gubmint.’ She spat.

‘But if she pays Government, it’s for you,’ protested Polly. ‘The money is still yours.’

‘Might be she pay Gubmint, might be not, but me no catch’m.’ Nancy threw out her hands. ‘How you get money from Gubmint? Some people try, ask polissman. He say: “You got tucker, got cloes, what you want money? Gubmint look after money. You get’m you spend’m.” ’

In the dim light Polly stared thoughtfully into the fire. ‘How about Bobby, does he get money?’

‘You bin talk Bobby. Hi, Bobby, Polly bin talk’m your job, you get’m plenty money?’

Bobby looked round. ‘Me got job orright, plenty money. Ten bob a week.’

‘Ten bob a week?’

‘Yeh, ten bob a week once a month. Nebber he give me money, though. He bin say: “Now, Bobby, you bin get baccy, get flour, get tea, get taties. You nothing get money, you owe me money.” ’

He waved his arms. ‘All a time he talk: “Bobby, you bring bag flour this genmun. Bobby, you stack them tins. Bobby, you no bin finish clean that yard.” Then he talk white man: “These blacks no good. Must watch’em alla time.” ’ He relaxed again and shook his head thoughtfully.

Nancy slapped at the back of her neck.

‘Polly talks can she get job so little girl learn to be like white people.’

‘Might be get job, might be not,’ said Bobby. ‘Must talk pollissman.’

The older woman spoke up for the first time. ‘More better go mishun. Plenty tucker, plenty school.’

‘Ooh, yes,’ said Nancy. ‘Mishun up Kuralla in Johnny’s country. We there two-t’ree-five year ago. Good—plenty tucker. Might be we go back but too much kids, all time more kids.’

‘What do you do at mission?’ asked Polly.

‘Work little bit,’ said Bobby. ‘Nothing much work, not bad as other white folk. Plenty too much sing an’ pray.’

‘Sing and pray,’ asked Paddy. ‘What that?’

Nancy jumped up, held her arm out as if holding a book, turned her eyes up with a soulful look, and worked her mouth vigorously. Then she fell on her knees, took up an attitude of devotion, and jabbered some gibberish. Everybody laughed; even Johnny gave a grin.

Bobby laughed and clapped his thigh. ‘Thasall. Plenty pray, then Jesusman say you goodfella. Allasame white man in sky when you all finish up.’

‘What work do they do?’ asked Polly.

‘Oh,’ said Nancy, ‘bit clean up, wash’m cloes, work garden, hunt, fish, plenty make’m toys for white people, wood, shell things. Don’t have to work too much hard but muss pray plenty. You wan’um girl learn white people stuff, that’s place. Can learn read, write, play music-box’ (here she waved her arms as if tapping Piano keys), ‘everything. Some coloured kids there talk allasame like you. Me thought you bin mishun.’

‘No,’ answered Polly, ‘my father taught me. He taught me to read their Bible, too, their holy book.’

‘Oho,’ said Nancy, rolling her eyes and pursing her mouth. ‘You talk Jesusman Bible-talk and pray plenty, he never let you go. You go Kuralla, better than this.’

‘What do you think, Paddy?’ asked Polly.

‘Can try,’ replied Paddy. ‘If it no good can go on with Johnny.’

‘You come with us then,’ said Betty. ‘Good, we go soon, but tomorrow must get tucker. We get any from polissman, Bobby?’

‘Might be something. You all go tomorra early. Might be give some rashuns.’

‘Me no go near pollissman,’ said Johnny, with great feeling. ‘No good, that fella. Go up river hunt somethings.’

‘All right, the rest of us can go,’ said Polly. ‘We go very early, is that best, Bobby? What do we do? Go up to his house and ask for food, do we?’

‘No, no.’ Bobby shook his head violently. ‘You bin ask him he reckon you proper cheeky fella. He got long yard, you sit down longa bottom near shed. He bin talk alonga you what you want d’reckly, might be two-t’ree hour. You go after sun-come-up.

He turned to Johnny. ‘You go up river, Johnny. Might be find kangaroo. No feed anywhere, some proper cheeky fella come in eat white man’s farm.’

So, all plans being made, they retired for the night. The travellers stretched out under a tree. Bobby and his women crawled into the mia-mia where grunting and stirrings proclaimed that children were being moved over to make room. Soon the only sound was a plop in the pool below them, or the rustling of leaves as some night creature moved about.

Next morning close on sun-up, as Betty had just got the billy and a tin of water boiling, and the others were turning over ready to get up, Johnny staggered into camp bending under the load of a huge kangaroo. Two or three old scars showed where white man’s bullets had failed to stop it.

Johnny recounted with great glee how it had been so busy watching a white man’s house as it cropped his grass that it had failed to see the black shadow moving up on the other side. Then, when he had thrown a stone to disturb it, it had hopped towards him and met its death as it paused at the fence.

Bobby’s children’s eyes nearly popped out of their heads as they watched big lumps of meat going into the stewpot. Some time later their stomachs were popping out even further, as they crammed the tough, half-raw meat down their throats.

Paddy, Betty, Polly, and Mary squatted down at the bottom end of the policeman’s yard under a big old pepper tree and watched the first signs of movement up at the house.

The policeman came out on the back verandah and had a wash and a white woman and coloured girl dodged in and out on a variety of errands. Then all was quiet for a time, no doubt as they were having breakfast. Two black trackers in old khaki pants and shirts lounged about near the back verandah waiting for their tucker. As the coloured girl came out and handed them each a tin dish, the policeman came out and spoke briefly to them. He was spruced up now, with a broad-brimmed hat, clean khaki shirt, and pants. When he left them he walked down the yard past the pepper trees, glancing at the people squatting there but saying nothing. Then he went out of the side gate and away down the street.

Some time later one of the trackers came over to the little group. ‘Where you fella from? What you want?’

Paddy started to explain they came from Melville Downs, were passing through and had no tucker, when the tracker broke in brusquely:

‘Me know you now. You all same Paddy ride races las’ year. Might be you run away Melville Downs.’

‘No,’ protested Paddy, ‘no run away. Mis’ Smires send walkabout. We want rashun.’

‘Me tinket Mis Smires no more send you walkabout you all same run away,’ said the tracker with a knowing look.

‘How we run away with women and kid?’ asked Paddy. ‘No can run, no can hide.’

‘Orright, might be boss he talk you,’ and he went back up the yard to start polishing saddles and bridles.

About mid-morning the policeman came back and passed them again without even glancing at them. He spoke to the tracker and then passed on into the house. Soon they saw him sitting in the shady side of the verandah having a cup of tea.

By this time Mary was getting fidgety. ‘Mummy, I want a drink of water. Mummy, can I go and play?’

Polly found it hard to keep her quiet, especially as she herself was getting restless and wanting to relieve herself. But the others remained unmoved and apparently immovable, so she forced herself to do the same.

At last, about half an hour later, the policeman came out again and this time he came directly to them. As they jumped to their feet, he looked them over. Then: ‘Where you fella bin walkabout? What you bin wan’em?’

Tall and thin he stood, with a sagging waistline held in check by a heavy belt. Cold eyes shifted ceaselessly under the broad brim of his hat and his cheeks were flabby under a decaying coat of tan.

Paddy told his story briefly.

In a tone of indifference the policeman replied: ‘Might be you bin tell true, might be you bin runaway. Mebbe I bin put you longa gaol till Mis’ Smires bin talk me.’

Polly butted in desperately. ‘But you can’t do that. We did not run away. Mr. Smires sent us away.’

The policeman turned on her savagely. ‘You bin talk me no can do, me bin show you where cheeky gins go!’ Then to himself with a chuckle: ‘Oho, so that’s it. Now I remember—the “gin with the Oxford accent”, Smires’ pet stud. So that’s why he sent them. Still the same Smires!’

Then, sharply to them: ‘Orright, might be you bin tell true. But Gubmint no more bin gib tucker you fella go walkabout. You bin keep go, no more hang around this fella town. Me bin see you in town, in gaol you go, quick time.’

As they moved off to the gate he stroked his chin. ‘Might be funny, give ’em some tucker, then tell Smires I gave special rations for his son and heir, he, he!

‘Hi, you, wait! Hi, Jacky!’ He strode up the yard to meet the tracker who ran up at his call.

Soon the tracker came and gave them a parcel wrapped in much-used dirty brown paper. When they got down the road a bit they examined their treasure. It was four or five pounds of weevily flour and a couple of pounds of iron-hard blue boiler peas, all lumped in together.

Back at the camp they found it deserted save for the older lubra who squatted in the shade of a tree. Johnny no doubt was away hunting. Squeals and laughter from the bed of the river told of the happy children at their play, and Mary ran down to join them.

Soon they came racing past the camp, Mary in the lead, not a shred of clothing on any of them, their skins glistening from a dip in the pool. Mary was tall for her age, and slim. The march through the desert had taken every ounce of superfluous flesh off her and she was as graceful, fit, and tough as a Melbourne Cup horse. Her body glowed golden-brown where her scanty dress had protected it, but arms, legs, and face were burnt nearly black.

Seeing the children, Polly decided to follow their example. ‘I’m going down for a dip, I’ll wash this dress too. Are you coming, Paddy, Betty?’

‘Not me,’ said Betty. ‘Me sleep.’

‘Orright, me come,’ answered Paddy. ‘Not much washing,’ glancing down at his ragged shorts with a smile.

The water was shallow and warm and after the first kick and splash and scrubbing they found a sandy patch and lay in the water, soaking and dozing. Polly rolled over and clung to Paddy. ‘Oh, Paddy, how happy we could be if we could live like this.’

‘Yes,’ replied Paddy, ‘no shadow of white man.’

‘I know, you want to go with Johnny and Betty. But let us try the mission first. If they are like the rest of the whites we’ll go bush, to Johnny.’

She rolled over and clasped her stomach. ‘Oh, Paddy, I hope it’s your baby. I think I’ll kill it if it’s like Smires.’

Paddy laid his hand on hers. ‘We find home—somewhere.’

Bobby came home for dinner but Nancy did not; dinner-time was a busy time on her job. Johnny no doubt was too busy looking for tomorrow’s dinner. After a good feed of kangaroo-meat that was now boiled down to a stage where it could be chewed, everyone lazed around for a while, enjoying the shade of trees with an abundance of foliage.

Polly, in her station house-dress, crumpled but moderately clean, looked a different person from the one who had stumbled into camp the night before. She must have felt different too, for suddenly she sat up. ‘Paddy, couldn’t we go into town and have a look at the shops?’

‘You heard what pollissman said,’ replied Paddy. ‘ “I catch you in town, I put you in gaol!” ’

Her face clouded over. ‘Oh, yes, I heard.’

Bobby came to the rescue. ‘Might be you go town af’noon proper hot fella, pollissman be ’sleep or drink beer, he no see.’ Polly’s eyes shone. ‘Oh, Paddy, could we do that?’

‘Orright. Bobby say orright.’

To avoid the street where the police station was they skirted the town as they had done coming in, but this time kept close to the houses on what was no doubt a ‘street’ on the town plan. They strolled along the dusty deserted track, Paddy with an air of nonchalance as one who knew all about towns. Polly was frankly envious of the people who lived in these little weatherboard cottages, and of the faded house-dresses on the few weatherworn women they saw.

As they came to the corner of the town’s main street, across the road and the railway line they saw the loco shed. Here an engine was being fired up ready for a run. This black monster spitting steam and smoke fascinated Mary. ‘Oh, Mummy, can we go nearer?’

With many a backward and sideways glance they crossed the road and edged over towards the railway line, at any moment expecting a roar: ‘Get away from there, you black bastards.’ The cleaner who was getting up steam saw them, and with a wide grin pulled the stopcock. There was a terrific roar of steam and before the sightseers had time to draw a breath they were back on the main street again.

Then came the great thrill—‘the shop’. It was a little general store, just like any other country store, with shirts and saddles, sweets and stockings, cigarettes, and cinnamon, and flies and dust over all. The three stood by the kerb, drinking it all in. Gradually, inch by inch, they crept nearer until their noses were rubbing against the glass.

Steps along the footpath made them jump back to the kerb. They huddled together as they saw a peaked cap, not knowing whether it was some kind of policeman. The loco driver, with his black box slung from his shoulder, was going over to the engine to get ready to take the train out. As he came level with them he saw Mary peeping shyly out between Polly and Paddy. ‘You little beauty,’ he said, and stopped and fumbled in his pocket. He produced a threepence and held it out to Mary. ‘Here y’are. Get’m lolly.’

But Mary hugged close to her mother, only her wide eyes peering around the skirt. The locoman gave the threepence to Polly. ‘Get’m lolly,’ and to himself as he walked on: ‘Bonny kid, bonny kid.’

Polly stood as if petrified, her arm still held out, fingers gingerly holding the coin as if it might go off.

‘Well,’ said Paddy, ‘go on, get’m lolly.’

‘Oh, no, no,’ stammered Polly, ‘I couldn’t. You get it.’

‘Orright, I bin get’m.’

Paddy took the threepence and marched boldly into the store, but his bravado deserted him at the door and he sidled furtively in and stood shyly back as far as he could from the counter. The storekeeper turned. ‘What you bin wan’em?’ he barked.

Paddy jumped, then held out the threepence, pointed to the window, to Mary, and finally got out, ‘Lolly, me want lolly.’

The storekeeper grunted, and picked out a fly-specked penny candy bar. He handed it to Paddy and grabbed the threepence. ‘Right,’ he said.

Paddy hurried out, holding out his prize in triumph. Mary took the lolly gingerly and didn’t know what to do with it. But when Polly showed her she lost no time, and sucked away in ecstasy.

A few yards further on they came to a sudden stop. This was the cross street that led to the police station. They hummed and haaed, wondering whether to risk it. Finally they hurried across, and found rich reward for their daring. In this block were two hotels, a post office, and another store, while across the road was the railway station. Having looked their fill, they came at last to the corner where the town petered out, about a hundred yards from the river.

At this moment there was a screech and a roar and the weekly train thundered across the bridge over the river.

At the shuddering rumble of the steel bridge under the pounding wheels, Polly and Paddy shrank a little as they huddled close, and Mary grasped her mother’s skirt. Then the engine came in sight, threading its way through the steel girders, and blowing steam from every joint as the driver eased off for the run into the station. Polly and Paddy relaxed a little. They had seen a train before; but Mary’s arms were tight round Polly’s legs and her eyes popped at this hissing monster.

As the engine cleared the bridge and rocked along towards them it gave a piercing and prolonged whistle to let everyone in town know the train was in. The three sightseers pressed close together, and nearly choked as hearts and stomachs and huge gasps of air met in their throats.

The fireman, lounging slack-limbed now that the main part of his work was over, face gleaming with sweat between the streaks of coal dust, saw them huddled together and grinned and waved. Mary’s eyes popped even further at the amazing sight of a man riding the great beast. Now the rest of the train rolled by: trucks, vans, an empty cattle truck, and, bringing up the rear, a dilapidated carriage and a guard’s van. The three of them stood with mouths and eyes open until this startling phenomenon squeaked and thudded to a stop at the station.

Suddenly Paddy noticed the policeman hurrying across the road towards the station. ‘Quick, let’s go!’

They scurried back out of sight and then leisurely strolled home along the bank of the river.

Polly touched Paddy’s arm; her eyes were misted with happiness.

‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it could be like this all the time!’ she sighed.

To put the final touch to this marvellous day Johnny arrived back, glowing with triumph, with a good feed of fish. A dozen or so there were, small but succulent, almost too good to be true for people who had not tasted fish for years. When they had eaten they put some aside for Nancy, who had still not arrived. Polly asked Bobby if it was usual for her to work so late. He brushed the question aside with, ‘Might be she work.’

The children all went to bed and the adults squatted round the fire, going over again all the events of the day. Nobody wanted to broach the question of leaving. Finally Betty said, ‘We ready for go in morning?’

Everybody looked blank and when Johnny said, ‘Mebbe get some tucker for track tomorra,’ a sigh of relief went up.

Polly rushed in. ‘Oh, yes, and another day will be good for Mary. It’s better if we get everything ready tomorrow and then we can make an early start.’

Johnny said, ‘Too far, too rough up river, mus’ go that-a-way.’ Again the chin jutted to the north. ‘Say not bad track, bit water, bit tucker.’ They fell to discussing the track. Bobby knew it but had not been over it recently, and all the others excepting Paddy had been through the country before.

Late in the evening Nancy stumbled into the camp. Her eyes were glazed and her hair flying in all directions; when she spoke her voice was a bit thick and uncertain. She flopped down by the fire. ‘These white fella no damn’ good. One fella gimme two bob but other fella on’y have bottle-plonk. Allus same, no wanna give money, jus’ grog. Still,’ brightening up and licking her lips, ‘good plonk. Mos’ on’y have metho.’ As everyone was silent she burst out: ‘You t’ink I like do dis? Mus’ get coupla bob somewhere.’

Betty and Polly protested that they didn’t think anything against her. Somewhat mollified, she went on to explain again. ‘Mus’ get money. Nebber get ’nough tucker for kids. Sometimes all right, just get coupla bob, all finish. But some fella say, “Orright gibbit two bob,” then all finish gib nothing. Sometime knock me down. What I do? All place same.’

She lapsed into silence and sat brooding. Polly jumped up and got her fish, and told her about life with Smires. Soon she was smiling again and regaling them with stories of her adventures with drunks.

Nancy suddenly remembered that she had scored a plug of nicki-nicki. So everyone lit up and soon mosquitoes for twenty yards around were flying for shelter.

The next day was, if anything, better than the first. Paddy was like a dog with two tails because Johnny took him with him when he went hunting. Nancy took the day off and she and Polly played with the kids. Betty and the other woman sat and smoked. They all did just what they wanted to do, except poor Bobby, who struggled manfully to work.

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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