No Sunlight Singing

Book One, Chapter 7

A blood-red sun was dipping into clouds banked low on the horizon as Johnny led the way over a ridge into a deep hollow, where luxuriantly foliaged tropical trees, upward-twisting tendrils of vines and downward-searching threads of banyan roots, spear-like reeds, and stumpy pandanus palms formed a miniature jungle. The atmosphere was sultry and oppressive as lightning played fantastically and incessantly among the distant clouds. The travellers walked wearily after three days of tough going. Sufficient food they had had, mainly lizard, but barely sufficient water, and that carried all the way from the spring, a hole in the rocks where a tiny stream of clear water bubbled up from some subterranean source.

Now, as they pressed eagerly into the wall of greenery, they were met by an all-pervading stench of decaying flesh.

A few yards brought sight of their goal, an expanse of mud in the middle of which was a small patch of thin mud, or thick water covered with scum. In it on the near side of the pool lay the remains of a beast in the last stages of decomposition. As they drew closer, the buzzing of blow-flies filled the air, and a slithering and scurrying told where goannas were leaving their evening meal.

A little further over, the great gaunt body of a roan bullock with baldy head and crumpled horn lay on its belly in the mud. The neck was twisted over to lie flat on the mud, and a horribly staring red eye socket showed where the crows had been at work. Johnny waded over to him, felt the body, then pricked it with the knife. ‘Him warm, but dead,’he said.

‘Ooh,’ chorused the women, ‘kidney, liver, heart.’

Johnny looked at Paddy. The latter hesitated. ‘Not good,’ he said, ‘but if him dead what can white man say?’

Johnny pricked the bullock again, then made a deep cut and started to excavate. There was no movement from the beast, but from the knife-cut thick dark blood oozed slowly. ‘Him only just dead orright,’ said Paddy.

Loaded with offal and a tinful of soupy water, they moved back from the ‘jungle’, away from the mosquitoes, and settled down to have a real feast.

The Wodalla Station homestead lay quiet as if dozing under the late afternoon sun, as the travellers skirted around it looking for the blacks’ camp. The house itself was a low, sprawling, weatherboard structure, showing signs of many extensions on a humble beginning. In front of the house two well-grown palm trees gave an air of permanence, while, down the sides, vines and shrubs offered pleasant relief to the eyes and at least an illusion of coolness. At the rear the outbuildings, well built and tidy-looking, sheltered behind a clump of eucalypts. Further back still stood the stockyards and here the party came to a halt, wondering where to go next as there were still no signs of a camp of blacks.

Just then Paddy saw a native coming out of one of the bunch of huts nearest to them, so went over to speak to him. He was an elderly man, nearly white-haired, thin and wizened of feature, and with skeleton-like arms and legs appearing from khaki shirt and shorts. ‘Where bin blackfella camp?’ asked Paddy.

‘We bin lib here,’ said the old man, waving his arm with a grand air to the nearby huts.

‘Pretty flash orright,’ said Paddy. ‘Mus’ be good boss.’

‘Him good fella boss, plenty. Him bin pay wages. Some ten bob a week.’ He looked at Paddy defiantly as if expecting this staggering statement to be challenged.

However, Paddy accepted it, as a minor miracle, yet possible. The old man went on more apologetically. ‘But him no let any udders in huts. Him say “make’m dirty might be”. You know some people’s dirty fella orright. Not like you,’ he added hastily. ‘So you camp by trees.’ He indicated a little patch of scrub over from the stockyard. ‘Plenty water near stockyard.’

Paddy turned to go. ‘Wait a minnit. You bin see store dere.’ Paddy looked where indicated and nodded. ‘You bin go dere after sun go down you bin get tucker, baccy too. Oh, dis good place orright.’

Under the influence of this clean place the folks all had a good wash when they found the tap at the stockyard. Mary just got down under the tap and had a real sluice. Then they went up and squatted at the side of the store, waiting for something to happen. The old fellow came over and sat down by them to have a gossip. As the sun went down some riders came in, three whites and two blacks. They unsaddled and let their horses go, and two of the white men squatted down on their heels by the door of the store.

Soon a stout, elderly man came hurrying, fat red face gleaming with sweat, wheezing like a punctured bellows. He opened the door and proceeded to attend to the wants of the two stockmen, tobacco or whatever it was. A few minutes later he came out and looked the party over. He said: ‘You wan’em tucker? Come here.’ As they stood bashfully back from the door, he handed them a generous issue of flour, a bag of the inevitable blue boiler peas, sugar, and even tea and a couple of sticks of nicki-nicki.

The big man noticed Mary peeping out from behind her mother. ‘Ha, little one, come out here, what you hiding for?’ Polly pulled her out to the front. ‘Oho,’ he said, ‘a little beauty, eh. just wait till I see what I can find for you!’ He went back inside and after a few minutes reappeared, red in the face and streaming with sweat, but holding aloft in triumph a bag of hard-boiled lollies. ‘There you are, little one. I knew I had something somewhere.’

‘Say thank you, Mary,’ Polly prompted.

Mary took the bag timidly and turned her head away as she whispered, ‘Thank you.’

Just then another man bustled up, a little, spare-built man, with iron-grey hair and skin brown and wrinkled as the arm of an old leather chair. A stern expression was offset by twinkling eyes. ‘Oh, Tom, I want to see you about those accounts,’ he said as he stopped at the door. He looked at the people as they moved back, then hard at Paddy. Stepping over towards him he stroked his chin, evidently thinking hard. ‘You,’ he said to Paddy, ‘you bin ride at Margaret. Yes, I remember you bin ride for, lemme see now —Melville Downs, was it?’

Paddy nodded.

‘Why you bin leab there?’

‘Missa Smires bin tell, no more work, cattle bin die, you all bin go.’

‘That’s how it is, eh? Where you bin walkabout now?’

‘We bin go longs mishun,’ Paddy said.

‘Ummm, you bin like job here?’

Paddy’s face lit up, he nodded without a word.

‘Well, him no good here now, not like Melville Downs, but too much dry. You like go longa mishun, come back here when rain him come. I gib job, ten bob a week. You like? O.K. ?’

Paddy at last managed to stammer, ‘I come.’

‘Good. Splinter,’ to the old native, ‘you bin take’m longa butcher, get’m meat.’ He swung away briskly and hurried back to the store.

In camp that night the usually quiet Paddy was full of excitement, could talk of nothing but a job at Wodalla. ‘Ten bob a week, pound in two weeks—oh, plenty money. You’m Mary get flash clo’es, like white women.’

‘Yes, Paddy,’ Polly broke in quietly. ‘But we might not come back here.’

Paddy floundered, aghast. ‘But you not come with me? You want to leave me?’

‘No, Paddy, I don’t want to leave you, but I want Mary to be educated like a white girl. I only said we might not come back here. If there is a good chance for Mary at the mission I want her to stay. If it is no good we will go with you wherever you go. It is not far to the mission, we might be able to see you often.’

‘Mebbe,’ said Paddy hopefully, ‘we could leave Mary at mishun and come here.’

‘We’ll wait till we see what it is like. I don’t want to leave you, Paddy.’ She laid her hand on his arm. ‘But I do want Mary to have a chance.’

A shady corner behind the L-shaped store was the favourite place for the men of Wodalla to wait for the tucker bell. From this corner the drooping leaves of a pepper tree rebuffed the sun’s rays all day, and now, when the setting sun was low enough to search under the tree, it was blocked by the store itself.

Tonight five men awaited the call to eat. Two of them perched on knotty outcroppings of the tree-trunk. The other three, scorning such aids to comfort, squatted on their heels. Four of them looked like ordinary station hands, in shirts, trousers, and riding boots, but the fifth was dressed for carpentering, in overalls and sandshoes.

A nuggety-built man was this one, and he answered to the name Nugget when someone used it. He had the highest seat, and he used his position to advantage as he leaned over the others, laying down the law in the most popular Australian pastime—arguing about races.

‘He was a moral beat las’ Sat’day. Wasn’t he?’ A big wag of the finger this time. ‘Y’all heard the race same’s I did. He couldn’t ’a’ got beat on’y they pocketed him. Oh, how good will he be for next week!’

A little wizened-up old chap, who was so bow-legged he could hardly get his feet back close enough to squat on them, piped up. ‘How d’yer know somp’n won’t happen again? A couple of ’em pro’bly held him in a purpose. I seen plenty of it when I was ridin’. ’

Nugget winked at the others. ‘No, Pop? How could they? Didn’t you useter ride straight across country in your day?’

Pop, who looked as if he might have been round and about in time to ride The Barb, was spluttering and trying to get set to answer this outrage when an interruption came. Two riders cantered up and jumped off their horses at the tree. Everyone looked up in surprise, thinking they must be strangers. Then the surprise continued because it was two of their own men who had ridden up there, instead of going down to unsaddle and get ready for tea. One, a youngish chap, tall and thin as a whiplash, burst out: ‘Yer know that baldy-faced roan youse were talkin’ about last night, the one we useter use as a marker for the mob over by the twenty mile? Well, Jim an’ me found him, didn’t we, Jim?’

Jim was also lanky, but not so young, probably in the thirties. ‘Yeh, Larry, we found him all right. He’d got bogged in the water-hole. Poor bastard, the crows had been at him, the goannas had been at him—an’ the blacks.’

‘The blacks?’

‘Yeh,’ shouted Larry excitedly, ‘the black bastards had cut him open before he was dead. They must ’a’ done. Yer couldn’t see much for where the goannas had been gnawin’ about, but I seen a streak o’ blood runnin’ down his side from a cut in his back, so he couldn’t ’a’ been dead. We seen the tracks, didn’t we, Jim? Blacks all right, an’ they headed this way. Yer know there’s on’y been one team a blacks here in weeks, that lot last night.’

‘We can get ’em,’ said Jim. ‘There’s water at the twelve mile an’ no more for miles. They won’t a went past there tonight. I say teach ’em a lesson. Even the old man can’t cop this.’

Two of the stockmen jumped to their feet. ‘That’s an idea.’ ‘Be a bit o’ fun.’

The third one shook his head slowly. ‘Wouldn’t be in it,’ he said, ‘less I knew somp’n more about it, anyway.’

Pop twisted and spat behind him. ‘Don’t panic,’ he said when he turned back. ‘I ain’t arguin’ the black bastards might need it, but yer know what th’ old man’ll say.’

Nugget butted in. ‘What’re you screamin’ about, anyway? It’s the blacks’ own country, ain’t it? Why shouldn’t they have a feed?’ He looked hard at Jim, a sneer on his lips. ‘You’d be a per-tickler bright spark to be tellin’ us anythin’. How’d you know what they done less they told yer?’

Jim flushed and started to yell something. It was easy to see there was a ready-made quarrel between these two. But just then the ‘old man’ came over, attracted by the noise. ‘What’s all the excitement, boys?’

Larry rushed through the story again, stammering a little with excitement. ‘We think we should go out an’ do ’em over. We can’t let ’em get away with this. An’ after that the cheeky bastards have the nerve to come here for a hand-out. When’ll we go, now or first thing tomorrow?’

‘Neither,’ said the boss. ‘There’ll be no doing over.’

‘But we can’t let ’em get away with it,’ Jim protested. ‘They cut ’im open alive. Hangin’s too good for ’em.’

‘Just do ’em a bit then,’ someone else suggested.

‘No. I’m the boss.’ The little man drew himself up and his face set grimly. ‘I keep telling you, there’ll be no manhandling of blacks. And, anyway, I think there’s some mistake. They didn’t seem a bad mob to me. Anyway, forget it. It’s my bullock and I’ll do the worrying.’ With this he turned and walked away.

‘Can you beat that?’ asked Jim. ‘We allus knew he was soft, but that takes the biscuit.’

Larry’s face assumed a cunning look, and he screwed his face up in an exaggerated wink. ‘Ain’t we goin’ out tomorrer in a general direction that might include that track, Jim? Mebbe we might see our friends, an’ mebbe a touch of the stock-whip might send ’em off in a hurry without us havin’ to touch their precious black hides. What do you think, Jim?’

Jim looked his admiration. ‘There’s no doubt about you. You know all the answers. But we’ll have to get crackin’ before daylight. It’ll be worth it, though. It’ll be a pleasure, in fact.’

Pop looked up at them and said: ‘You take my tip. Now the old man’s said his say, you ferget it. An’ don’t try him out to see how soft he is.’

Nugget stood up and stretched. ‘Jim don’t try anybody out to see how soft they are. Do yer, Jim? ’Less it’s a poor harmless boong—or a gin—that’d be more his weight.’

Jim flushed but made no move. ‘P’raps you’d like to help yer friends the boongs,’ he sneered. ‘Mebbe tell the boss what we said.’

Nugget moved slowly forward. ‘I can’t see these boongs needin’ any help again’ youse,’ he said. ‘Youse two’d never even find ’em. But,’ and here he pushed his face right up to Jim’s, ‘since when have I needed the boss t’help me handle you?’

Larry grabbed Jim’s arm and spun him round without much effort. ‘Come on, the bell’ll be goin’ any minute.’

As the first rays of the sun peeped through the trees the party strode forward strongly, with the knowledge of several miles of the day’s walk already behind them, and only a few days to the mission station.

Everybody was busy with his or her private thoughts. Johnny and Betty were on top of the world. Once they left the others at the mission they would be entering their own country, and could expect to find traces of their own people at any time. Johnny was already in imagination out on the track of game, where game was plentiful and no one to hinder him. Betty could see herself gossiping with the women, with plenty of hard work to do, but free from the shadow of the whites.

Paddy had only one cloud on his mind, the thought that Polly might leave him, but this was only a hazy cloud. He didn’t really think he would lose her. For the rest he could only foresee pure joy. Born and bred in the cattle country, he loved the life and the work. To think of living and working on a station where his work would be appreciated was to anticipate achievement of his lifetime’s ambition.

Mary didn’t know what was ahead and, child-like, didn’t much care, content to know there was something new and good. Polly had told her of water stretching further than she could see, lovely clean sand to play in, and plenty of other children to play with, delicious fruits, and other foods she had never heard of, that she could eat whenever she wanted. But chiefly there was one solid fact she could grasp and appreciate, soon there would be an end to this seemingly endless walking.

Polly alone was ridden with doubts and foreboding. Her physical condition perhaps had much to do with it. The child was lying heavy within her, adding to bodily and mental stress. There was little chance now that it would be born before they reached the mission and once there she would not be free to choose whether it should live or die. Mary was enough responsibility without being saddled with a brat she might hate.

She could not accept, as did the others, a simple rosy view of the immediate future and let that suffice. Her brain insisted on trying to look further ahead, and she could not find any long-term solution to her worries. Chiefly, of course, she thought of Mary, and she could not convince herself that a mission education would be sufficient training for success in the hard white world outside.

They were passing through red-soil country, fairly heavily timbered. As they came out on to a small bare plain they heard hoofbeats behind them. Having received friendly treatment from the whites they had just left, they were not immediately anxious.

Suddenly, with pounding hoofs, shouts, oaths, and cracking stock-whips, two riders burst out on to the plain and swooped down on them.

‘Git movin’, you black bastards!’

‘Into ’em, Jim.’

‘S-s-s . . . take that!’

The coloured people burst into frantic movement as the stock-whips hissed and cracked among them. Betty grabbed Mary and rushed for the nearest trees on her left, while Polly dived for the trees behind and to the right.

Johnny and Paddy ran straight ahead to draw the enemy from the women. As they raced across the plain the horses kept pace behind and the whips lashed furiously.

‘That’ll teach yer, black mongrels. S-s-s . . . Cop that, an’ that!’

When they reached the trees on the far side of the plain Paddy and Johnny split up. Still keeping in the same general direction they dodged now from tree to tree. Their pursuers found it hard now to score many hits, but they kept on for about a mile. Finally they stopped and swung round. ‘That should hold ’em for a while, Larry. I’ll bet they’ll be careful round here in future.’

‘I’ll say, an’ they won’t sleep too easy for a week or two. But gor, can they run, eh? I copped that young ’un a beauty and, Christ, did he move! Yer’d ’a’ thought he was takin’ off to fly.’

‘I wonder where their gins got to? They could do with a touch up. They’re cheekier’n the bucks half the time.’

‘Oh, they’ve gone to earth like rabbits by now. We can’t stop to look for ’em. We’ll have to get back to what we’re s’posed to be doing or we’ll have the old man on our necks. It’ll be me an’ you for the track if he finds out what we’ve done.’

‘Look, Jim, quick, there’s one!’

Polly, thinking the coast was clear, had picked this unfortunate time to walk out into a little clearing. Larry spurred his horse into a gallop and swung between her and the trees as she rushed back for shelter. Polly turned about and started back across the clearing, a hundred yards or so. The whip seared hotly across her shoulders and she spurted madly, running blindly, her only thought the need to reach the trees. Larry cantered behind, not attempting to hit her, but his whip snapping viciously all about her. As she neared the trees her foot hit a log and she fell and lay still. Larry pulled his horse to a halt and flicked the heaving body with the whip. It jerked convulsively and then clung closer to the earth.

As Larry cantered up to Jim he roared with laughter. ‘Did yer see her belly? Jeez, I nearly died.’ As they rode away the sound of his laughter echoed faintly.

The others had heard the whip and soon gathered round. Betty turned Polly over, felt her body, listened to her sobbing breathing. ‘Carry under tree. No can go on. Mus’ camp.’

They carried her under the tree and tore down some leaves and twigs to make a bed. As the sun got higher and poured through the scanty foliage, Paddy cut down some light branches and made a rough shelter.

Polly was in a semi-coma most of the time, seeming to be unconscious of her surroundings. Only occasionally she would call for Mary and hold her hand for up to half an hour at a stretch. Mostly she was content to hold the hand quietly, without even opening her eyes. But now and again, briefly and spasmodically, she would squeeze it fiercely as if afraid of losing it, till Mary was forced to cry out with pain.

At intervals the pains would come upon her, and as her body heaved and twisted, in between moans that came half-smothered between clenched teeth, she would yell incoherent abuse. Always the same—curses on the whites—any white and every white.

As the afternoon wore on, heavy clouds started to bank up, and the furnace heat turned to the heat of a Turkish bath. Sweat trickled off everyone in tiny rivulets, but from Polly’s tortured body it poured in streams. Gradually at first and then with increasing speed the clouds gathered, until, as the lightning played ceaselessly among them, there seemed to be endless layers of cloud with the lowest almost resting on the tree-tops.

Betty went out to where the men sat, glum and silent. ‘Get’m bark?’ she asked.

They jumped up and went to work. The bark was hard to strip as the sap was not rising, but finally they got enough to make a lean-to all round the tree. By this time it was just on sundown and already dusk. The air was so saturated with water that breathing was difficult. As the storm worked up to a climax, Polly’s pains increased in violence. Poor Mary sat with tears streaming down her face, almost petrified with fear. Betty would have liked to send her out, but as soon as she made a move Polly would cry out for her.

The storm broke with a shattering peal of thunder and a torrential downpour of rain. As if at the sound of a starting-gun, Polly heaved and groaned in the supreme effort of labour. Betty knelt over her and pressed fiercely on her body. Daylight was gone now, and the eerie light of almost continuous lightning flashes was the only illumination in this scene of travail.

The flimsy strips of bark, on which sheets of water hissed and thudded, were only inches from Betty’s head as she crouched low over Polly. Soon the water started to drip through the chinks in the bark and to pour down the trunk of the tree, and Betty knelt in a pool that rose steadily up the slightly higher ground where Polly lay.

In the far corner, near Polly’s head, Mary crouched with her hands over her eyes, moaning in unison with her mother. On the other side of the tree the men squatted mute and uneasy.

At last it was over and Betty held a tiny bundle in her hands, but only for a minute. ‘Dead,’ she said laconically, and dumped it behind her, then returned to her task of trying to help Polly. Now, the muddy water she knelt in was stained with blood. All around was a sea of water, and it lapped up through their shelter until it reached Polly’s back. Still the rain poured down, though now the first grand fury of the storm was spent.

‘Paddy,’ called Betty sharply, ‘get leaves, plenty leaves. Polly in water.’

Paddy and Johnny stumbled out into the waste of waters. Soon they were back with armfuls of twigs which they stuffed in under Polly as Betty raised her up. The leaves were sopping wet, but at least they held her above the flood.

The fever was mounting and Polly was raging hot and constantly calling for water. Betty simply reached outside and scooped some up in a tin. Betty called Mary to her, and they both crouched by the patient trying to shield her from the drips of water, and to keep her body heat in now that the outside temperature was falling rapidly.

For hours Betty kept her vigil, cramped and cold, as Polly tossed and turned, muttering incessantly, and Mary slumped in an awkward, uneasy doze. By the early hours of the morning the rain had fallen to a steady drizzle, and the flood had abated leaving only scum and mud, and Polly had quietened to a feverish sleep.

Suddenly her voice, quiet but urgent, shocked them all awake. ‘Betty, Paddy, Mary!’

‘Yes, Polly,’ said Betty. ‘What you want?’

‘Are you there, Paddy?’

Paddy slithered around the tree. ‘Yes, I here.’

‘Oh, Mummy,’ cried Mary.

‘Listen to me, I haven’t much time,’ the voice waxed strong and bitter. ‘You know I hate the whites. If I could kill them all by raising my hand I would raise it—but I can’t. I know now my father was right when he told me: “Keep away from the blacks, they are doomed. If you mix with them you will go down with them.” That is why he would not let me learn to speak my mother’s language. He said that coloured people who even talk to blacks will never be accepted by the whites. He sent me off with a white man, but he died without making sure I was properly married and I knew no different.’

The voice faded away for a minute, then came back clearly again. ‘Harry, the miner, told me what must be done. If a coloured girl marries a white man, properly, according to their law, she has a chance to become equal to them—the lowest of them, a thief or a drunk, he said, is better than any coloured person in their law.

‘So Paddy and Betty, I want you to take Mary to the mission and leave her there. Never go near her again.’

‘Oh, Mummy,’ wailed Mary.

‘Quiet, child, you must listen to me. You must learn everything you can about whites, and when you grow up try to get to Darwin and marry a white man. You will be lovely, Mary, and they will burn for you, but not many will marry you. But you must get one to marry you, even if it is the worst.’

The voice got lower and wandered off. ‘ “Keep away from the blacks,” he said, “they are lovable and kind and brave, but the whites have broken them and will wipe them out.” ’

‘Mary, oh, Mary, let me see you. Paddy, make a light, make a light. I must see her—oh, Mary, my darling.’

Paddy groped in his wet shirt and pulled out a parcel of damp rag, he fumbled in the dark but finally got out a box with a few precious matches.

A sobbing whisper, ‘Make a light, make a light.’

The first match hissed, spluttered and died. The second did not even hiss. The third lit shakily, then flared up.

Mary was clasped to her mother’s breast, but Polly’s eyes were closed and her breast was still.

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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