No Sunlight Singing

Book Two, Chapter 1

UP FROM the tepid waters of the northern sea sprang three dusky maids, and sped across the burning sand. One, lovely as a vision of eternal youth, ran fleetly as the Goddess of the Chase, with smooth limbs and jutting breasts, little, if any, darker than the first Diana, who no doubt was olive-complexioned. But the others, ebony black and lithe as greyhounds, ran easily ahead, as if they had been Diana’s hunting dogs.

The first two skimmed over the top of a sand dune and dived under the shade of a ti-tree. But Diana threw herself face down in the sand on the seaward side of the dune. As she hit the burning sand, she writhed violently until the top sand was pushed aside and young breasts and thighs nestled on the cooler layer below. Then she lay still, hands clasped below her forehead.

One of the girls in the shade gasped: ‘Phew, it’s hot! T’ink the swim make you hotter.’

Then she looked round. ‘Where’s Mary?’

Her mate giggled. ‘She bin gettem suntan, Sally. Hab a look.’ Sally jumped up. ‘What, day like today? Mary, you bin go prop’ly crazy?’

‘No,’ the other put in, laughing. ‘She not crazy, she in love. She get brown so she be like Jimmy. She burn with love an’ burn for love.’

Sally giggled at this and clasped her friend to her. They rolled over and over in the sand, laughing helplessly. Mary tensed and wriggled a bit but pretended not to hear. Suddenly Sally pulled herself together and got serious. ‘What you try to do, Mary? Get us all in trouble? Down here nobody can see us, but out dere dey see you for miles. What you t’ink Quivers do to us if she catch us swimming away from our own pool, an’ with no clo’es on?’

Mary looked up at this and said with scorn: ‘Can you imagine old Quivers waddling about in this sun? She’ll be gasping on the verandah.’

‘Yes, but what if Lucy see us an’ tell her? You know Meg say she saw Lucy lookin’ out the window when we leave, an’ you know Lucy’d walk miles to get us in bad.’

‘Oh, all right,’ Mary grumbled, getting up and coming into the shade with the others. ‘But I think you’re making a song about nothing. And I did so want to get a bit brown today. It’s not what you think, either,’ as the others started to giggle again. ‘I just want to be brown all over, instead of having brown neck and arms and a pasty colour all the rest of me. Go on, giggle,’ as the titters continued. ‘It’s all right for you two, the sun can’t make any difference to you. But look at my arms and legs, and with old Quivers making us wear dresses all the time I can’t get a chance to get in the sun.’

Mary looked disparagingly down at her creamy skin as her hands softly caressed it, brushing off the sand that clung to it. As the fierce sun stabbed through every chink in the twisted ti-tree’s tattered shield, one fiery lance glanced off from the mass of glossy black hair that tumbled luxuriantly to her shoulders. Below this shining helmet the solemn brown eyes looked comically tragic in the delicately oval face.

Under the drowsy compulsion of the blanket of heat and the somnolent melody of lethargic waters listlessly curling on the beach below, the other girls stretched sensuously on the warm sand.

Spreadeagled, and slightly arched over a hummock, Meg’s slight frame looked fragile as if blown in black glass. Her puckish little face lolled backwards, mischievous eyes veiled against the probing barbs of sunlight. Built on a similar scale, but more generously, Sally hugged deeply into the sand, her broad placid face cradled on her arms. The sand that had stuck to their wet skins, now dry, glistened startlingly white against the black.

Without bothering to move, Sally mumbled into her arms: ‘Still t’ink you crazy, but what ’bout that patch ’tween the trees? Plenty sun dere.’

As Mary walked over to the sunny patch, Sally half-opened her eyes to watch. ‘Fancy you bin worry ’bout looks, you more lubly than princesses in story books.’

‘But Jimmy—’

‘Oh, oh, Jimmy, eh?’ chorused the other two.

‘All right, you want to be clever, you don’t want to listen.’

‘No, no, we listen, not noder word.’

‘Well, Jimmy always says I am too white, I should marry a white man, as my mother ordered. He always brings up that old tale.’

‘But it right, it not a tale,’ said Sally. ‘Ebberbody know that.’

‘Even if it’s not a tale, it doesn’t matter. Where would I get a white man? Anyway, I don’t want a white man, I want Jimmy.’

‘Well, you no’ get Jimmy,’ stated Meg flatly, turning over on her stomach to join in the talk. ‘Jimmy too good, he go for Jesus-man prop’ly. Besides, if Jimmy wannem, Mum Quivers she no wannem, she no let ’em.’

‘Just imagine you talking, Sally,’ said Mary. ‘You speak of nobody but Tommy, your Tommy. You love him, you want to marry him, and at the same time you sneak off at night with Sammy. I saw you the other night. And you, Meg, you play around with anybody at all.’

‘Oh, yes,’ admitted Sally calmly, ‘me bin sneak out with Sammy orright, but that bizness.’

‘Business!’ gasped Mary.

‘Yes, you know I want marry my Tommy, he want marry me. But old Quivers she say no, we too young. All right, s’pose me bin get in fambly way. What she say den? “Oh, you mus’ marry right away, who did this? Oh! Oh!” So longtime we bin try, me’n Tommy, to get baby. Long time we bin try, but no catch’em. So we think somebody wrong, if it’s me—nothing can do, but if it’s Tommy—can fix. So me try somebody else. If Sammy get me in fambly way, she’s right, I marry Tommy.’

‘Oh, but, Sally, how could you?’ said Mary in horror. ‘You marry Tommy but have somebody else’s baby.’

Sally looked sulky. ‘Well, why not, what diffrunce? Me’n Tommy don’t care. If we had people it diffrunt, dese things be fixed. But me’n Tommy we got nobody, on’y Mum Quivers. She don’t worry ’bout us an’ me’n Tommy don’t care, so there y’are. You see there mebbe not much time. Me sixteen now, so any day Missus might send me to a job, and Tommy, s’pose they send him to job? How we be s’pose we go to jobs mebbe hunnerds miles between? How we ever see one anoder! Mebbe never.’

‘But they’re not likely to send Tommy to a job. They’re short of men and Tommy is so good with the pump and everything. Charlie couldn’t spare him.’

‘Mebbe Charlie not spare him, but Quivers not fussy. S’pose one of her fav’rite station men, a big boss, come and say he want good boy. You t’ink Quivers worry about Charlie—she gib him Tommy, orright. On’y reason I not go yet ’cos I work too bad. But s’pose somebody Missus don’t like ask for girl, she send me. No, we want get married, then they can’t send us to diffrunt places.’

‘I dunno,’ said Meg, ‘you wanna get away from dis place, but you no wanna go to a job. S’pose you marry Tommy, what you do? Go walkabout? That no good. No, I say go to a job, that’s best way. Then mebbe some day get to Darwin. That’s place, plenty people, plenty things, even see movin’ picshers.’ Meg’s eyes shone at thought of these thrills.

‘You know Lola that came back from leper island—she tell me. She say leper island prop’ly no good, but Darwin good place. She can’t go there or they put her on island, but good for anybody else.’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Sally, ‘that good idea orright—get job—go to Darwin. Jus’ like that. How you think you get away from the job? You go to station you stuck there jus’ like this, on’y worse, mebbe, an’ more work.’

‘I dunno how,’ said Meg stubbornly, ‘but some people do it. If they can, I can. There bin men about, an’ where there men a girl has chance to get somet’ing.’

‘By the way, Meg,’ asked Mary, ‘why don’t they send Lola and the others to the leper island? A white man came here not long ago looking for lepers and I heard Quivers tell him she didn’t know of any.’

‘I dunno. Lola say she told to hide when any strange whites come. She say the missus ask her when she come back if the bosses on the island tell her any church stuff, an’ when Lola say yes, missus was plenty mad. Lola thinks they have diffrunt god on the island and the missus’ god doesn’t want any of us to go there.’

Mary shook her head in puzzlement. ‘That’s funny, they always say the whites only have one god. But I suppose it’s all right if Lola doesn’t like the place anyway. I think we shall have to go soon. Do you think we could risk another swim?’

‘Oh!’ The others jumped up. ‘Look at the sun. No, no more swim, no more time, let’s run.’

The girls dressed in record time. Their wardrobe consisted of old-fashioned capacious bloomers and Mother Hubbard-type dresses. These they grabbed up, and jumped and wriggled into as they were running along the beach.

After jog-trotting half a mile or so they turned inland on to a track that climbed up a low, but steep and scrub-crowned hill. As they struggled over the top of this they made a bee-line for the bushes, for there before them, shimmering in the heat haze, were the buildings of Kuralla Mission.

With iron skillion roofs and white-washed hessian walls standing out stark and glaring against the lush green of the wet season, a scattering of various-sized huts squatted low along the hillside. Beyond them, puny against a giant banyan tree, a modest timber-built bungalow perched on high stilts, and alongside it a box-like building was distinguished by a little cross.

The girls hurried forward, making for the workshop, a long low shed right in the middle of the huts. Just as they reached the first of the buildings, Sally hissed: ‘Hold it. Here comes the Quiver.’

‘See,’ said Meg, ‘in a minitt she be behind our hut. Then if we race like mad mebbe we bin make it ’fore she comes round this end. Ready—set—go!’

The speedy black girls had just whizzed into the shed and Mary was skidding around the corner, when a booming voice stopped her dead in her tracks. ‘Well, my girl, and where have you been?’

A glance at the lady who spoke left no doubt as to her identity, or the aptness of the name Quiver. Mrs. Quivesey was tall and broad, but more than anything else she was deep; two axe handles across the back, and almost as far from front to back. As she walked she quivered, and as she talked she quivered. As she grew angry, which was often, she quivered still more, until her voice quivered as it boomed, and to hapless underlings it seemed as if the very air quivered, so that they stood paralysed as rabbits before a snake.

Thus Mary stood, head hanging and fingers twining nervously.

‘Well,’ repeated Mrs. Quivesey, with more boom and more quiver, ‘where have you been so late this afternoon?’

‘Please, ma’am,’ said Mary in a voice that echoed the quiver but not the boom, ‘I went for a walk and forgot the time.’

‘Oh, and I don’t suppose your walk took you to the beach and that led you to a swim? Now don’t lie to me, girl. I can see the sand in your hair. Now, tell me, didn’t those two good-for-nothings Sally and Meg go with you?’

‘No—o, ma’am,’ protested Mary, trying hard to be definite, ‘I went on my own.’

‘Well, we shall soon find out the truth of that. Come inside.’ Mary dutifully followed the huge hulk, like a gazelle timidly tripping along in the wake of a hippopotamus.

Inside, the shed was truly a hive of industry under the spur of that voice. Tortoiseshell was being cut and polished into trinkets, grass and cane were being woven into mats, fans, curtains—all the little tasks missions find for idle hands to do. A dozen girls were there, ages ranging from about twelve to twenty, and not one nose a hair’s breadth from the proverbial grindstone.

‘Lucy,’ boomed the voice, ‘come here.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ and Lucy sidled forward.

Thin as a rake, and as black as anyone there, she had an aquiline cast of feature which suggested that perhaps an Afghan camel driver might have interjected himself into her ancestry at some stage.

‘Now tell me, Lucy,’ came the boom, ‘when did Sally and Meg come in?’

‘Oh, ma’am,’ said a placating whine, ‘they came in jus’ a minute ’fore you did.’

‘Thank you, that will do. You can go back to your work.’ Mrs. Quivesey half-turned to where Sally and Meg were pretending to work.

‘Now, Sally and Meg, seeing that you go swimming when you should be working, and on the beach where you are not allowed to swim, you will do two hours’ sewing after tea each night for a week.’

‘Oh,’ came a low murmur, ‘we’ll mis the wyluss.’

The huge red face turned a shade redder if possible. ‘Yes, you will indeed miss the radio. And if I hear another word out of you, you will miss more than that. Now, Mary, since you not only go swimming, but also tell lies, you will sew every night for two weeks.’

‘Oh,’ came a sigh from nearly everyone.

Mr. Quivesey had an old short-wave receiving set, and Mr. Quivesey was an amiable man. So he had long ago drifted into the habit of taking his set out on to the back verandah and playing it for an hour or so after tea to his charges.

The coloured boys and girls gathered under the banyan tree and listened with rapt attention to these voices from the outside world.

Sometimes he would get Darwin, sometimes Brisbane. Sometimes Victoria was best; but often reception would be so bad that he could hardly get anything. As it became worse the audience would grow more tense, and Mr. Quivesey could see the eyes glowing at him from the gloom under the tree. Juggling with the controls he could almost feel these eyes were hypnotizing him, willing him to produce the goods.

Mrs. Quivesey naturally had never approved of this session, but she had learned to value it for its disciplinary powers. The greatest weapon to her hand was the threat to keep the youngsters away from ‘the wyluss’.

There were usually between a dozen and twenty girls and a half a dozen to a dozen boys in the care of the mission. Some were just left there by their parents, but mostly they were orphans. Orphans were never scarce in this land where the white man’s diseases were rife and white man’s hospitals non-existent.

The difference in the number of girls and boys was partly due to the fact that people were more loath to part with boys, but chiefly it resulted from the relative frailty of boy babies.

The only whites at the mission were Mr. and Mrs. Quivesey. He was a big man physically, bigger even than his spouse, at least sideways and upwards if not fore and aft. Being amiable by nature, he was no match for her and had long since given up trying to pit himself against her.

Once he had had his way with her, and prevailed upon her to do something she did not want to do. That was when, as a young preacher in a country town in Victoria, and she a nurse, he had volunteered to fill a vacancy in the mission at Kuralla. She had argued bitterly, but had finally consented to try it. Now, twenty years later, she would not even let him go south for a holiday.

The young Mrs. Quivesey had soon found that mission life was her role. She, as the martyr, had had Quivesey on the wrong leg from the start and in no time had established herself as monarch of all she surveyed. Besides the thrill of authority, there was the deep satisfaction of reading, in the church’s magazine, glowing accounts of the heroism and fortitude of the Quiveseys—a never-ending serial story of their battle against incredible hardships, of their triumphs, and of the periodical tally of souls saved.

Even when the Japs had bombed Darwin and invasion seemed imminent, Mrs. Quivesey had fiercely refused to budge, when the authorities had advised them to evacuate. What was the risk of danger, compared to the probability that she might not get her husband back here again if he once went south? As it turned out, the war had passed them by, and all they saw of it was a couple of unidentified planes. So Mrs. Quivesey was even more of a heroine.

They had indeed had a harder battle to live, as no luggers were putting in with supplies, but this battle had been fought successfully with Mrs. Quivesey’s fortitude and determina­tion, and the hard work of her subjects.

Had Mrs. Quivesey been blessed or cursed with imagination, she might well have been classed as a heroine for living at Kuralla.

To one side of the mission lay that desolate and deserted sea, the Gulf of Carpentaria. Around it on the other side and to the north brooded the rugged and desolate land of Arnhem—Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve, by the grace of the white men reserved as a dying ground for the black man, until such time as all the blacks were dead, or the whites could find some use for it.

To anyone coming from inland, through country which, while not desert, was certainly semi-arid and inhospitable, Kuralla did indeed seem an oasis. The first sight that met the eye on crossing the creek bed was the mission garden. Patches of vegetables were interspersed with papaw and banana trees, and the whole was flanked by huge overgrown mango trees.

The mission lay on the side of a low hill that separated it from the sea, and here and there could be seen the waving tops of palm trees. A picturesque and efficient backdrop to the scene was the mighty, far-spreading banyan tree.

The luxury of a fresh-water creek on one side in addition to the sea on the other was due to the river which sprang from the hills not far to the west, and ran almost straight towards the coast as far as Kuralla. Here, meeting the hills, it turned north and wandered for several miles before finding its way to the sea. At this time, the tail-end of the wet season, it was still running strongly and could well be called a river, but for most of the year it was just a trickle linking a chain of pools.

Mr. Quivesey’s duties were chiefly the conduct of church services and school in the mornings for the children.

He had gained tolerance since the days when he promised fire and brimstone to backsliders in Victoria, so his sermons were now delivered amiably as to wayward children. But though the north had taught him tolerance he had learned little else, only to be unsure. His religion was still confused by a rigmarole of split-personalities and dominated by the theme of blood sacrifice. Mr. Quivesey’s coloured congregations accepted his words with politeness, but with incompre­hension at least equal to that accorded by his earlier white flock.

In the school he taught the children stories from the Bible and to count and read a little. With exceptional pupils like Mary, he was prepared to take more pains. Mary had come to him with a good grounding in English and he had taught her a lot, and encouraged her to read, and lent her books. In addition he had taught her to play the old harmonium, so that now she played the music for the hymns and he was free to attend to his preaching.

The general work of the mission, such as looking after the stock (they had a few head of cattle and a mob of goats), the garden, and repairs to the buildings were all in charge of Charlie, a coloured man. Besides seeing to all these jobs and running the pump to pump water to the garden, Charlie taught the young men to do them too; so that boys from the mission were in great demand on the stations within a few hundred miles, especially as pumpies.

Mrs. Quivesey saw to it that the girls learned to do all classes of housework, cleaning, cooking, and sewing; besides making the trinkets that were sent out for sale. So, too, her girls were in demand on the stations for domestic work. Theoretically, too, Mrs. Quivesey ministered to the sick and injured but in practice most of any ministering was done by old black Millie, the cook.

If any really serious cases came along, particulars were sent out on the pedal wireless to Darwin, and the flying doctor came to pick them up. But such cases were rare; the bush natives would rather die in their own country than be taken to Darwin, an alien place, to die.

There were usually a couple of families of coloured people who were regular enough workers in the community to be allotted huts to live in. Besides these there were two or three families of regular casuals, who were around the mission for a fair part of the year, but periodically would ‘go walkabout’. These camped down by the creek when they were in residence.

Even the regulars would sometimes go walkabout. One time a family of regulars shot through just when there was work to be done. When they came back in a couple of months’ time they calmly moved into their hut as if nothing had happened.

Mr. Quivesey called the man to him and gave him a good lecture on Christian duty.

The man looked a bit sullen and offended. ‘Me good Chisthun,’ he protested, ‘you bin tellem plenty time ’bout Jesus, how him bin t’row him hammer and saw down and go walkabout allatime.’

The nomads who just drifted in and out soon found out the drill: to get on the ration strength they had to attend church. Simply enough in theory but at times a bit complicated in practice.

To attend church they must have clothes, the rules of the mission were emphatic on that point. A lot of the wanderers did not come up to specification, as dilly-bags were definitely not recognized as clothes for sacred occasions. They had, therefore, the problem of establishing themselves as genuine cases in order to borrow clothes to attend church so that they could get some tucker.

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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