No Sunlight Singing

Book Two, Chapter 3

It was easy to see that Meg had often taken things to Lola that were not for Mrs. Quivesey’s eyes. When they left the kitchen, Meg, swinging a bunch of bananas, walked jauntily along, not even looking back, in a direction right away from where Mary knew the track to Lola’s ran. Looking nervously over her shoulder, Mary saw that the kitchen was between them and the house. Behind a little patch of scrub Meg turned sharp to the left. They soon passed this and were in the open again and Mary twisted sharply to look for the house, but now the banyan tree hid it from view. From there on it was plain sailing.

Lola’s hut was in the scrub between the sea and the river, nearly a mile from the mission. As they came to it, Mary saw that it was a tiny little hut knocked together from rusty iron. It was built under a shady tree and appeared to depend a good bit on the tree for support.

‘You there, Lola?’ Meg called out.

Mary had steeled herself, not knowing what to expect, but she couldn’t help a shiver as the woman limped out into the sunlight. Her grey, scaly face seemed as if it was cracking in two as she tried to smile at Meg. As she reached out a thin arm for the bananas Mary noticed that two or three fingers had joints missing.

Meg didn’t put the bananas on the ground as Mary expected. She just held them out, and it was Mary, not Meg, who winced as those hands clutched the bananas.

‘My friend Mary, Lola,’ said Meg; ‘she want you tell her ’bout Darwin.’

‘You know I not bin see much Darwin,’ said Lola in a dry husky voice that somehow seemed to match her skin. I just bin see when we go t’rough to leper island, but plenty big, plenty houses, ooh’—and she spread her arms wide.

Mary cleared her throat and started squeakily: ‘How did you get there? Were you near Darwin when you—when the—’ She faltered.

‘No, no, I bin longa bush, thataway.’ She jutted her chin vaguely in the direction of Arnhem Land.

Oh, then did the flying doctor take you to Darwin?’

Lola’s face cracked in a grin, and she grunted: ‘Ugh, flyin’ doctor! No, polissman he take.

‘We camp over dere,’ again the chin waved, ‘one, two, t’ree—oh, many people. One time polissman two black tracker he come. Polissman he look everybody den he talk my husband. “You leper,” he say, “you come longa us.” My husban’ not unnerstand, he look me an’ I tell. He not wanna go but polissman an’ tracker put chain on him, to ring round him neck. Den they get ’nother woman, leper pretty bad this one, an’ put chain on her, same chain, to her neck.’

Lola squatted down by the hut and her eyes looked beyond Mary as she went on. ‘Then polissman talk me. He say, “You wife this man?” I say, “Yes.” He say: “You better come longa us. You pro’bly leper too.” I say: “No, no, not me. Others can see, but me all right, skin soft, everyt’ing.” He talk tracker. “Put ’em chain longa her.” So me get chain too an’ off we go.’ Her eyes were expressionless, but she shook her head a little sadly at the memory of that long-gone day.

‘But how did you go?’ asked Mary.

Lola sounded surprised at the question. ‘We walk. Polissman an’ tracker ride horse.’

‘But you couldn’t walk far with chains on,’ gasped Mary.

‘Oh, him orright,’ said Lola unconcernedly. ‘My husban’ he leper orright but not bad, an’ me orright, but other woman bit hard for her. We walk days an’ days, nearly one moon. Den come longa iron road him call relway. Here we camp two, t’ree days. Then come terain-whoo. Dey put us in little hut with iron sticks cross window an’—whoo—off we go.’

Lola held her head up and looked at Mary. ‘Dat when we see Darwin, from terain. Houses an’ houses, miles of houses. When we get dere dey tek us down to sea, put us on boat, on island, an’ no more bin see Darwin.’ She dropped her head and lapsed into silence.

‘Oh,’ Mary protested, ‘but Meg said you knew about moving pictures and things.’

The gaunt, grey figure was motionless save for one finger tracing patterns on the ground. At Mary’s question her head shifted a little, but the dry toneless voice forced itself through motionless lips.

‘Oh, yes, me bin know orright. Other people on island from Darwin, they bin talk. Picshers orright, men ride horses go bang bang, other men go dead. Den bang bang, more go dead. Allatime ride horses, go bang bang.’

‘And do all the coloured people go to see the pictures?’ Mary asked eagerly.

‘Yes, allatime go they bin talk me, ebery week.’

‘Does somebody show the pictures for anybody?’ queried Mary in a puzzled voice. ‘Like Mr. Quivesey with the wireless?’

‘No, no.’ Lola waved her hand and explained carefully. ‘They gib money—like white people. In Darwin they bin work, get money. Plenty money they talk me—fi’ bob week.’ Her voice died away, and Lola sat brooding, dreaming no doubt of what might have been.

Mary broke in gently. ‘Meg says you didn’t like the island. What was wrong with it?’

Lola straightened up and shuddered. ‘Too much hot. On’y little bit ground.’ She waved her hand in a circle. ‘Water all round, when water go down, mud all round.’ She motioned to the little clearing, lightly dappled with sun through the heavy foliage. ‘No trees like this—nothing.’

‘But weren’t there doctors there?’ Mary asked. ‘If you didn’t have leprosy they should have sent you away.’

‘Dere no doctors,’ said Lola with a shake of the head. ‘On’y two-t’ree women in big white clo’es come over their head. Doctor come sometime, mebbe two-t’ree moon. Him jus’ look, then talk longa white women an’ off he go. Firs’ time he look me he say: “You sleep longa this man, prob’ly catchem. Now you here you better stay.” Soon I prop’ly leper, anyhow.’

Mary looked stunned. ‘But didn’t they cure anyone? Didn’t some people get well?’

Lola lifted her shoulders. ‘Nobody neber go ’way. One white man they talk got orright, but I never see.’

‘But you would be better there with someone to look after you.’

The grey face twisted hideously and the dry voice was bitter. ‘Nobody look after nobody. De lepers do de work. Tucker orright but not good as dis. Huts like dis, some like your hut, but hot, no trees, not’ing.’

‘Then how did you get away?’ asked Mary wonderingly.

‘One time airyplane he come, boom, bang, an’ all a big boats go burn an’ go down in water. We t’ink we go dead prop’ly, ooh, big noise. Den white men he come with boat an’ tek us over the water. Den dey say: “Go bush or you go for dead.” Lotta people not go far. My husban’ he too sick, he stay dere. I find noder people walkabout dis way so I come back. Longtime walk, many moons.’

‘But what—’

Look, Mary, we stop here we bin sewing next two year. We gotta go, Lola, see you tea-time. Come on, quick.’

‘It must be terrible here for Lola, she must be very lonely,’ said Mary as they hurried back to the kitchen. ‘I should like to come and see her sometimes when we could have more time to talk.’

‘ ’F you want you can go any afternoon while Quiver out of sight,’ replied Meg. ‘Some afternoons I go like today, but not allatime. When I not go, you could go. Lola like it orright. She not see much people.’

‘Does anyone else visit her besides you?’ asked Mary. ‘Does Quiver go to see how she is?’

‘Quiver—not likely. But Mr. Quivesey some time he go. He read Bible and tell her how Jesus touched lepers an’ fixed ’em up. That not much help for Lola, seein’ Jesus dead for long time, but still it pass the time. F’you really want go, see me after dinner an’ I tell you if I go or not.’

‘I can see the girls going across to the shop. We shall be just in time.’

‘Jus’ as well. We in plenty trouble already.’

The wet was over now and the creek back to normal. Placid pools dotted its course, and only logs and other debris jammed behind trees high up on the bank showed where the sullen torrent had lately raged.

The girls’ pool rang with laughter and shrieks as the youngsters had a final spurt of fun before racing up for tea. Suddenly all noise stopped as if by magic, and all ears pricked for a strange sound—the cough and splutter of a motor engine.

There was a mad rush up the bank to where bushes and trees on a bend sheltered their pool from the next stretch of the creek. By peering through the bushes they could see up past the garden to the big bend of the creek. On a rough track round this bend laboured a dilapidated old truck on its way to the mission.

‘Ooh, motor, what it doin’ here?’

All the younger girls chattered, querying and guessing about this strange sight. The older girls had fallen strangely quiet. They knew it almost certainly meant a job for someone. Somebody would soon be saying good-bye to Kuralla Mission.

‘I t’ink we go to tea,’ said Meg.

‘Yes, we’d better,’ said Mary.

Sally said nothing, her face had a strained look. She just followed the others as if in a trance. As they walked towards the kitchen they saw the truck pulled up at the mission house and a wizened pair of white folks talking to Mr. and Mrs. Quivesey on the verandah.

‘I bet it be a girl dey want,’ said Meg. ‘An’ dere be plenty work on dat job.’

‘I think I have seen them here before,’ said Mary. ‘Was it last year or the year before? Do you remember who Lily went with?’

‘I ’member,’ said Sally in a husky voice. ‘It them orright, an’ man who came here after told Millie, the cook, that Lily get beat pretty often.’

‘Yes, now I remember,’ said Mary. ‘And when the cook told Mrs. Quivesey she just said, “Pooh, you can’t believe these blacks’ tales; and if it’s right, no doubt Lily deserved it.” ’

There was no circle of light in the girls’ hut tonight, only the pale rays of the moon filtered through the opened shutters to soften the gloom.

Mary and Meg talked softly. ‘Sally bin too long now, mus’ be away from house.’

‘Yes, she must have gone to see Tommy. If Quiver told her she has to go, she would want to see Tommy right away. Poor Sally, it’s not fair. Here comes somebody now.’

The soft slither of bare feet and Sally dropped on the bed, a picture of despair. Her hair was tangled and her eyes swollen from weeping.

‘Well, I gotta go,’ she said bitterly. ‘Jus’ when I thought everything fix.’

‘What you mean, “everything fix” ?’

‘I t’ink I gonna have a baby.’

‘Oh, Sally, and you never told us.’

‘Well, I not know for sure. I miss one month, but I not want tell anyone till I sure. Now it too late.’

‘What do you mean, too late? It’s just in time.’

‘How I make Mum Quiver believe? Nothing show.’ Sally patted her stomach. ‘S’pose I tell her. She know I not want go, so she jus’ say I a liar. It jus’ spoil everything. Tommy an’ me we t’ink we go bush, but now no can do. Tommy say we prob’ly starve. We not know bush. Jus’ like white people. Might be orright before, but not if I in fambly way. An’ if dis woman beat Lily she beat me plenty. Lily better worker ’an me. I forget things too much, drop things too much.’ Sally drooped even further, till her chin was nearly on her knees.

Mary put her arm round Sally’s shoulder and tried to console her.

Then Meg hissed: ‘Don’t say anyt’ing loud. Jus’ lissen to me. I got an idea. In the morning you an’ me bin go to Mum Quiver. You say you in fambly way, you bin miss two month, no good say one month. I say yes, that right, I know—’

‘But,’ Sally interrupted, ‘she no’ believe you any more ’an me.’

‘Shurrup, an’ wait till I finish. You bin say it to Quivers—but you bin say it in front of noder woman. Now it don’t matter whether Quiver believes or not, or whether noder woman believes or not. She want somebody for work, she don’t want girl havin’ baby. So she say, “No, I won’t take her.” An’ there y’are. Quiver mus’ send somebody else.’

Sally’s face lit up, then dropped again. ‘No good. Who she send if she not send me? One of you. This place no good. I can’t let you take a bad job for me.’

Mary broke in. ‘Meg’s right, Sally. If this other woman hears you might be going to have a baby she won’t run the risk of taking you. Then before Quiver gets another chance to send you away your baby should be showing. Even if it turns out to be a mistake you’re still gaining time. I think if you don’t go she’ll send me. I’m the oldest and I know she’s mad at me. So don’t worry at letting me go. I’m big enough to look after myself. Besides, I’m not going to have a baby. You can’t risk going to a place like that. Anything might happen.’

‘I t’ink you both wrong,’ said Meg. ‘I sure she bin send me, ’specially if I bin go with you an’ tell her what she think lies. An’ if I go, how it hurt me? I goin’ to run away, anyway, so I might’s well run from a bad place as a good one. ’Sides, dese people got small place an’ Millie tell me small place better to run away from than big station.’

‘How do you mean?’ asked Mary.

‘Well, dere not many people. Some time eberybody ’cept missus be away. You gone ’fore dey get back. I t’ink dis be good chance for me.’

‘I don’t know about that. But I don’t think you will go. I think it will be me,’ said Mary. ‘But, anyway, Sally, you can see that we don’t mind. You mustn’t go. Think of the baby —and Tommy. You know, this might be your big chance. If you marry Tommy they’ll probably let both of you stay. Charlie is often sick now and Tommy will most likely get his job.’

Sally was crying now. She put her arms round the other two, ‘Oh, you too good, you too good.’

‘Well,’ said Meg, ‘now that fix. When you s’posed go?’

‘After brekfus’, right away.’

‘Good, I go wid you. I bet you I go tomorrow.’

Through the still night came the boom and hiss of the incoming tide. To Mary, turning restlessly on her bed, it was the familiar background music, only half-consciously heard, that emphasized the security and stability of life at Kuralla, the only life she knew. This life seemed most appealing now she was afraid she might have to leave it for the terrifying unknown.

As her body turned restlessly, her mind also turned restlessly over the story the black man had told Millie, the cook, about these people who wanted a girl, and about Lily who had gone with them before. The man didn’t speak much English but the cook had talked with him in his own language, and she was sure he spoke the truth.

With his woman and two children the man had come to these people’s station hungry, at a time when a drought was on the land. They gave him no food, but promised him a beating if he was not gone by the next day.

Lily, who spoke a little of his language, had sneaked down to his camp with some food in the afternoon, when she thought the woman was asleep. She told him quickly that she was badly treated, poorly fed, and beaten for anything or nothing. She asked him, if he was ever near Kuralla, to tell the people so that they would not send any other girls there.

The woman must have seen her leave the house, for she had suddenly rushed on them, grabbed hold of Lily, and abused her for stealing food for black thieves. Then she had started to lash Lily with a short piece of greenhide rope. Lily struggled to get away, but the woman’s screams brought the husband, and he held Lily while the woman flayed her with the rope.

Then the man had got his horse, gun, and stock-whip and whipped the family off the place, threatening to shoot them all the time.

So the black man had come a hundred miles out of his way to tell the people at the mission. Mr. Quivesey had been horrified and said they should never let anyone go to this place again.

But Mrs. Quivesey had laughed at him. How could you take the word of a black against white people? If you did believe this story, Lily had been beaten for stealing food, which was what she deserved. In any case the Government had men going round all the time to look after the natives, and she had no doubt they would see that all employers treated them well.

Mary squirmed and shuddered at the thought of the greenhide rope burning her back, and the endless misery of a life where you had no friends, but only work and hunger and the threat of the rope. There was no end to it as far as she knew, no way of getting away from such a place, unless you died or ran away. For a lone girl the bush might be worse than the greenhide rope.

As Mary turned again and her rickety bed squeaked and groaned, she heard an answering squeak from the bed next to hers. Meg, too, was turning restlessly.

Meg had said she was certain to be sent, especially if she went up with Sally. Mary’s heart lifted a little. Perhaps Meg was right. And if Meg went it wouldn’t matter so much, because she had always planned to run away from any station she was sent to.

Then Mary’s heart turned over and her eyes filled with tears. Imagine Meg, so young, so gay, being half-starved and ill-treated by a vicious woman. Meg—so willing at work, eager to help anyone—being driven with a greenhide rope. Little Meg who was so brave, who scrounged forbidden fruit for all of them, who worked and schemed all the time to get delicacies for Lola—and then refused to put them on the ground as ordinary people did for lepers, but stood unflinching and handed them direct into those frightening hands.

Impulsively, Mary stretched out and reached in the dark, feeling for Meg. She grasped an arm and hissed in a stage whisper, ‘Meg, are you awake?’ She could feel Meg turn towards her. ‘I can’t let you go up with Sally. Meg, I’ll go myself.’

Meg whispered huskily, as if something were sticking in her throat. ‘Don’ be silly, I told you I goin’. An’ don’ talk so loud. You want Lucy hear?’

‘Well, all right, I won’t talk. But I will go up. If you go I’ll go with you.’

Mary felt Meg’s hand squeeze hers. They said no more, but lay still, holding hands. Somehow it seemed easier to be taking a chance together, even if only one could win. The dull roar of the surf was now a lullaby. Soon the girls fell into youthful slumber which even fears of a greenhide rope could not disturb.

Next morning the old truck coughed and spluttered and Meg waved gaily from the back of it.

Quiver had stamped inside. All the girls were wiping their eyes and waving alternately.

Suddenly, way down the track, a lone figure appeared, to wait for the truck to pass.

Meg looked round and then called urgently, ‘You look after Lola, Mary?’

‘Yes, Meg, don’t worry.’

A crescendo of coughs and splutters, and the truck bounced away.

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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