No Sunlight Singing

Book Two, Chapter 2

The long hut that was a dormitory for the girls was in darkness, save for the dim light of a hurricane lantern down at one end. The faint light showed Mary, Sally, and Meg, modestly attired in bloomers, all sprawling on the one bed.

Outside the circle of light, deeper shadows showed where the other girls twisted and turned on the two rows of moist beds. They streamed with sweat as they waited for the time when the night air would eventually cool down this greenhouse atmosphere, superheated by the long hours of blazing sunlight on the low iron roof.

In conspiratorial whispers the three girls plotted dark deeds. ‘What we bin do to Lucy?’ ‘Can’t let her get away with this.’ ‘Mus’ do something.’

‘What can we do?’ said Mary. ‘I can’t think of anything. Ever since the last time we put bull-ants in her bed she shakes out everything every night. She won’t let us get near her tucker, and she won’t go in the swimming-hole while we are there. The only time we get a chance to get at her is in the workshop, and we can’t do much there for fear of getting everyone into trouble. There must be something, but I don’t know what.’

‘I dunno,’ said Sally. ‘What about the brains of the fambly! Come on, Meg, give us an idea.’

‘Brains,’ snorted Meg. ‘Ise s’posed to be dunce. You two s’posed to be the brains. But I fink I might hab someting. About dese bull-ants. We all know Lucy got a cheap Japanese bladder, she get up ebbery night, sometime two times. S’pose we keep bull-ants in tins, dey get nice an’ hungry, den when Lucy get up we tip ants in her bed. She not look dis time, jus’ roll in in dark. Den noder night we wait till she get up second time an’ put ants in. Soon she be shaking de bed alla time, she nebber know where she is.’

‘Oh, you darling.’ The other girls hugged Meg and clasped each other’s mouths to try to stifle the laughter.

‘Oh, can’t you three shut up and get to bed?’ came the whining voice of Lucy. ‘It’s way after lights out.’

‘You shut up, Miss Bigmouth, we bin work late, we hab time to get to bed.’

‘We shall hab to take turns keepin’ awake till Lucy gets up, but we mus’ get the ants first. Tonight soon’s eberybody asleep I go out see Jacky. I tell him what we want. He get plenty bull-ants.’

Meg’s voice was impressively lowered. ‘Now, lissen, tonight Jacky bin bring some good bananas. You know the kind Quiver allus keeps for theyselves. I plant dem’—here she went into details —‘you, Sally, come out after me and plant dem in here where Lucy can’t see dem.’

Sally looked lost. ‘I get dem orright, but how I plant dem where Lucy not see dem?’

‘You on’y got to hide dem tonight,’ said Meg impatiently. ‘Tomorrow, soon’s Lucy go up to the house to get th’ instrucshuns, we gib some to eberybody and dey soon finish. Now, we better get to bed, I want to go soon.’

‘Meg,’ said Mary, ‘will you ask Jacky to tell Jimmy to meet me tomorrow night?’

‘I tell him orright, but why you not tell Jimmy youself?’

Mary blushed a little. ‘I never see him except at meal-times and it’s so hard when Quiver might be about. Jimmy is so afraid of her.’

‘I tell Jacky, but what I tell him?’

‘Just say to meet me at the usual time and place.’

‘Okie, g’night.’

Up at the mission house that night Mr. and Mrs. Quivesey were holding a consultation, the usual one-way consultation.

The air in the house was hot and sultry, but whatever the climatic conditions Mr. Quivesey always felt it hot and sultry when his wife called him to her in her ‘consulting’ voice.

Tonight, when the call had boomed forth, Mr. Quivesey had been ensconced with a book in his favourite position on the back verandah, in the lee of the mighty banyan.

Unwillingly abandoning his peaceful pursuits, Mr. Quivesey sank down on to a chair at the imperious wave of his wife’s hand, still trying hastily and with all his usual futility to beat the ploughshare of his mind into a sword and shield.

That gentle lady lost no time in springing to the attack, leaving him vainly waving his ploughshare against the impact of her heavy artillery.

‘Those three girls have been causing trouble again. We shall have to get rid of them.’

‘What three girls?’ Mr. Quivesey made a brave pretence of honest enquiry.

‘What three girls?’ Mrs. Quivesey barked. ‘As if you didn’t know. Mary and Sally and Meg, of course. It’s no good. They will have to go.’

Mr. Quivesey waved his hand weakly, and his voice was weak as he tried to protest. ‘But, m’dear, Sally and Mary want to stay. Why not just send Meg out to a job? I think she is the ringleader. If she were gone the others would be quite all right.’

‘Ringleader fiddlesticks.’ Mrs. Quivesey snorted and the higher chins quivered. ‘She’s the youngest of the three. If the others didn’t want to do anything she couldn’t make them. How am I ever going to train the younger girls when the older ones are carrying on like this?’

‘Oh, I do not think they are so bad; just full of high spirits,’ Mr. Quivesey protested. He leaned forward on his chair and his voice took on an earnest, almost a pleading note. ‘Tommy will be hurt if Sally goes. They are really in love with each other. He is always asking me when can they get married.’

‘Huh, in love you say.’ Her mouth twisted in a sneer. ‘These coloured girls don’t know the meaning of the word, they’ll chase after anything in trousers. I have it on very good authority that this so devoted Sally is sneaking out with somebody else right now. I don’t know which one, I wish I did. She will definitely have to go.’

‘It will make a difference to Tommy. His heart will not be in his work.’

‘Bosh,’ she sneered again. ‘He’ll forget her in five minutes.’

‘But Mary, she is such a good girl.’ Mr. Quivesey looked helplessly across at that domineering figure and his voice stumbled a little. ‘You yourself have always said what a good worker she is, and so intelligent. She is such a help to me in the church. I do not know how I could carry on without her. And you practically promised that she and Jimmy could get married in a year or two’s time.’

All the chins quivered now and Mrs. Quivesey’s booming voice vibrated as if her throat were corrugated deeply inside as well as out. ‘Don’t misquote me. I said in three years’ time, if they were still of the same mind, and if they behaved themselves. But she is not behaving herself.

‘As far as the church is concerned, you managed for many years to play and also conduct the services. I fail to see why you can’t do it again. And here let me say’—and the quivers began in real earnest, the multiple chins quivering like the gills of a fish newly thrown on the shore, and the huge bosom quivering until it seemed impossible for any man-made material to contain it—‘I very much doubt if the church is your chief concern in this case. I have seen you watching the girl when you thought I was not looking, and—’

‘Stop, stop!’ Mr. Quivesey was stung into making a vehement interruption. ‘I will not listen to these vile insinuations. Every time one of our girls grows up you make similar allegations. You know in your heart they are not true. I will not have it.’

‘Very well, you will not have it. But I will not allow this girl to remain here. That is that. The wet is nearly over now and we shall have some enquiries for domestic help as soon as the roads are passable. They shall all go.’

The tryst of Mary and Jimmy was kept on the verge of a tropical fairyland. A wedge-shaped piece had broken from the hill, leaving a cleft rising steeply from the beach to the top. The lovers climbed over the edge on to a ledge below, just wide enough for two to stretch out on. Here they were cut off from the prosaic world. The only sound was the gentle lap-lap of the tide below. The only sight was out to sea between graceful palms. A half-moon was rising, spreading its radiance across the shimmering waters.

Moonlight on tropical waters, viewed from a ship or from a beach, is like the heaven promised to churchgoers—an impossibly brilliant and infinite vista through endless monotony. But moonlight on tropical waters through the fronds of palms—that is the glittering path to the paradise of the Muslims, or to fairyland.

Under its spell a poetic soul can be bound for hours, and even ordinary mortals for a space become oblivious of sandflies and mosquitoes.

Jimmy and Mary, however, by not looking at the moon, remained immune from its spell.

Jimmy, awkward and ill-at-ease, wriggled back as far as the cliff would allow, but Mary pressed herself against him. ‘Oh, Jimmy, tell me you love me. Why do you dodge me all the time? I can’t bear it. Don’t you love me any more?’

The supple body seemed to envelop him and burning breasts and thighs began to melt him as moist eyes sought for his and trembling lips begged. ‘Look at me, Jimmy, don’t look away all the time. Say you love me just a little.’

He squeezed her with awkward violence and kissed her with youthful brutality, crushing her lips against her teeth.

‘You know I do. I’ve told you plenty of times.’

Then her lips were on his, smothering anything else he might have wanted to say. For a time Jimmy relaxed and they were lovers again, as they had been months ago before the shadow of Mrs. Quivesey’s threats had been laid on them. All too soon, though, the lovers’ curse—tomorrow—was on them again.

Jimmy gave her a push. ‘Leave me alone. Let’s talk things over. I can’t think with you rolling on top of me.’

Mary rolled back half an inch, leaving one arm across his chest, and one leg across his, burning its message into him.

‘All right, I won’t touch you, if you’ll tell me what we’re going to do. Did you see Mum Quiver like you promised?’

‘Well, not exactly.’ Jimmy coughed and spluttered. ‘You see, I went to speak to her and she turned and looked at me. You know how Mrs. Quivesey looks, and, well, I sort of couldn’t speak. But I spoke to Mr. Quivesey.’

‘Oh, but, Jimmy, you know Quiver is the only one can do anything. You said yourself it’s no use asking Mr. Quivesey. But what did he say?’

‘Oh, he didn’t say much. He didn’t seem to want to talk about it. But he did say that you were spoiling things by getting into trouble. What have you done, Mary? Surely you know Mrs. Quivesey won’t have anyone making trouble about the place. You should know better than that.’

‘All I did was go for a swim. You know how crook it is when the river’s flooding; can’t have a swim, just a wash with a tinful of muddy water. So we went down to the sea for a swim. It would have been all right only we forgot the time and came back late. Anyway, what’s so bad about having a swim?’

‘You know it’s against the rules. You can’t go against the rules. You can’t blame Mrs. Quivesey for being mad about it.’

‘But what’s going to happen? Are they going to let me stay here? The cook said a funny thing to me today. She said: “Ah, you won’t be here long, you bin too pretty. On’y gels like Lucy bin stop here.” What did she mean? D’you think they will send me to a job?’

‘I don’t know. From the way Mr. Quivesey sounded today I wouldn’t be surprised.’

She seized him fiercely. ‘Oh, but, Jimmy, you wouldn’t let them send me away from you? Tell me you wouldn’t.’

He squirmed uneasily. ‘What could I do?’

‘Oh, Jimmy, let’s go away together. I’d be happy anywhere with you.’

‘Go away! Run away and go bush, go walkabout like the blacks, you mean?’ He pushed her away and jumped to his feet.

His voice shook. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. I was ten when I came here and I was on the stations and walkabout with my mother and a black fellow she lived with. Kicked about by white men, and white men giving her, my mother, metho, and sleeping with her. And on the track living on goanna and often nothing. No, not again.’

She clung to him. ‘But with us it would be different. You wouldn’t let me go, would you, dear?’

‘I can’t help it. I don’t want to leave here. Here you can eat and they treat you well. Mr. Quivesey says if I work hard and study I might be a preacher like him. You had a chance. Mrs. Quivesey said if you behaved yourself you could stay. Now you get in trouble and want to blame me.’

Mary tried to cling to him but he pushed her off and jumped up off the ledge.

‘Let’s get back before I get into trouble, too.’

‘Now, Mary, tell us what the trouble. You bin get around all day like a dog wid a porcupine in him throat.’

The three girls had just flopped on the bed after finishing the night’s sewing. Sally and Meg turned sympathetically to Mary, who had a faraway look in her eyes and a deep droop to her lip.

‘You jus’ as well tell all about it, Mary,’ said Sally. ‘D’you have a row with Jimmy?’

‘Oh, no,’ said Mary, trying to look as if she didn’t care. ‘It’s just that it’s all over, that’s all.’

‘What you mean? You didn’t have a row, but it all over. What happened!’

‘Oh, well, it looks as if I have to go and Jimmy is going to stay—so . . .’ She waved her hands and tried to look brave, but her lips trembled a bit.

‘Ooh, you bin told you gotta go?’

‘No, nobody told me straight out, but Jimmy had a talk to Mr. Quivesey, and—oh, one thing and another. I’m sure I’m going to be sent to a job. And Jimmy’s right, there’s nothing we can do about it. He can’t afford to leave here. He has a chance here he wouldn’t have anywhere else. I wouldn’t let him ruin it, even if he wanted to.’

‘D’you ask him to run away with you?’

‘No, no, I just mentioned it, that’s all. But I wasn’t thinking. You couldn’t expect Jimmy to run away, it wouldn’t be right.’

‘But if you go away and Jimmy stays here, you mebbe not bin see him again, ever,’ said Sally solemnly. ‘That what I ’fraid of with Tommy.’

‘I know, I know,’ sobbed Mary, and buried her face in the pillow. ‘But what can I do? What can I do!’

After a while Meg said quietly: ‘You might’s well face it, Mary. You gotta forget Jimmy and look for youself. Get away from here, an’ keep movin’ till you gets some place. This place, poo! Might’s well be dead as stuck here.’

Mary got up, wiping her eyes with the backs of her hands. ‘I think you’re right, Meg. We should try to get to Darwin. There’s nothing in the bush, is there?’

‘No, might’s well be black gin if you gonna stop in bush,’ said Meg, with airy disregard for her own ebony skin. ‘Sally, you better be in it, too. Oh, yes, Mary, what about Sally? You hear anyt’ing ’bout Sally? F’you is in bad with Quiver, mebbe Sally an’ me are, too.’

‘No, I didn’t hear anything about Sally except that Quiver is mad about us going for a swim. She reckons we set a bad example to the young girls. But, of course, she’s been mad plenty of times before, so it probably means nothing. No, I wouldn’t worry, Sally. I think she’s specially mad at me this time.’

Mary paused and thought for a minute. ‘By the way, Meg, I’ve been thinking today, I’d like to hear about Darwin. Do you think I could have a talk to your friend Lola?’

Meg shrugged her shoulders. ‘Why not? She there alla time. But you don’t want Quiver to see you. It all right for me, I take her tucker down seein’ she not allowed in camp, but nobody else s’posed go there.’

‘Why is that, Meg? I always thought nobody could go near a leper. But if you go why can’t anyone else? Is it really dangerous?’

The little shoulders shrugged again, and Meg sounded indifferent. ‘Well, I go ’cos somebody got to do it, an’ Lola was friend of my mother. They say f’you don’t touch ’em it all right. I dunno. I’s bit worried ’bout Lola when I go. Y’see, her feet’s startin’ to get bad an’ nobody else here likes goin’ near her. Still, I s’pose somebody put tucker out somewhere an’ she come an’ get it like they do in Bible.’

Mary shook her head doubtfully. ‘You would think it would be better for her in Darwin with the other lepers where she would be looked after?’

‘You tell her.’ Meg’s voice was scornful. ‘She bin there. She say anything better than leper island. F’you want see her an’ you not scared, meet me behind kitchen after dinner when Mum’ll be snorin’. I take you down then. I gotta take some bananas down Jacky got for me. Can’t take ’em down with her reg’lar tucker ’cos Mum would see. But you hear more about leper island than about Darwin.’

‘Oh, I would like to hear about the leper island.’

‘You hear all right. She not see much of Darwin, but she see too much or plenty leper island.’

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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