No Sunlight Singing

Book Two, Chapter 4

Until Meg was gone none of the girls had realized how big a part she had played in putting a spark of life into the monotonous routine of the mission. But now something gay and vital was missing from their lives and all were, at least vaguely, conscious of it.

No, not quite all. Mrs. Quivesey heaved a sigh of relief that a nuisance had gone, someone who could never be completely held in subjection. And Lucy was overjoyed. She had never been in doubt as to who was the leader among her tormentors.

Sally and Mary felt lost and aimless, like ships without rudders. But Sally had her ever-growing anxiety about her future to keep her mind occupied.

Mary soon found she had plenty to keep her busy now she had to look after Lola, on top of her ordinary work and playing the harmonium at church services and Sunday school.

After dinner she went along to see Millie, to find out what she had to do for the leper. The cook was fat and round and jolly. No one had any idea what her age was, but everyone knew it must be considerable, as she had been cook before the Quiveseys came. But her age seemed of little importance since, at least as far as anyone could see, it made no difference to her. She was just as fat, round, and jolly, sharp with her tongue and fast with her work as she had been ten years ago, or twenty.

The cook enjoyed one distinction. She was the only person on the mission who had no fear of Mrs. Quivesey. That gentle lady had long ago fought a battle for supremacy and been glad to accept a draw. Since then the position had been one of armed truce.

Mary stopped at the kitchen door and tentatively poked her head in, as all people of good sense do at a kitchen door, to accord such high office the reverence it deserves and await an invitation to enter.

‘Ho ho!’ said the cook. ‘Come in, dearie. Dey tell me you gonna tak’ de tucker to Lola.’

‘Yes, Millie. I promised Meg I would look after Lola.’

‘Ho ho! So you bin promise Meg. But did you bin ask Mrs. Quivesey?’

‘Oh, no, I didn’t think. Should I go and ask her?’

‘You should, but you won’t.’ Millie laughed a deep rolling laugh. ‘I bin fix. Missus she say, “Millie, who we bin get carry tucker longa Lola?” I say, “Little Mary she bin tek de job.” Missus she bin quiver like you gels call it. “An’ pray who tell Mary she do de job?” I say: “Nobody bin tell Mary. Meg bin ask her.” “Oh, did she?” says Missus. “Well, I bin say who do job, not Meg.” She bin prop’ly mad, but I fix. “Oh, orright,” I say, “you get somebody else do de job. Mebbe you get Lucy, she not frighten’, oh, no?” Ho ho! De missus she shake like she gonna bust. Den she t’row her nose in de air an’ off she go.’ Cook pointed at Mary.

‘Dat noder black mark for you, dearie. I don’ git black marks, I all black.’

‘Oh, dear, I never thought,’ gasped Mary. ‘Still, I don’t suppose it makes much difference to me now.’

‘Not a bit, dearie. Mek no diffrunce how you try keep sweet longa missus. ’Less you crawl and tell tales like Lucy an’ Jim.’

‘Well, we won’t worry about it,’ said Mary, trying to sound brave. ‘Tell me, how many times a day do I have to go to Lola?’

‘You on’y have to tek down dinner.’

‘But what about breakfast and tea?’

The cook waved her hand. ‘Oh, you tek stuff now and she cook herself. But Meg plenty time go down in afternoon when she bin get some extra. An’ sometime she go down tea-time, carry somet’ing Lola like speshul.’

‘Oh,’ said Mary eagerly, ‘I would like to take down anything anytime I could. But I wouldn’t know how to get things like Meg did,’ she added doubtfully.

‘Don’ you worry ’bout dat, dearie. F’you wanna tek stuff down, I get it for you an’ tell you when it here. See dat box?’

Millie pointed to a big box outside the kitchen door. ’Dat where I keep empty bags. An’ dat where we put stuff for Lola, unner de bags. When de boys get somet’ing good from de garden dey put it in dere. When I say “She right” you know somet’ing dere. Den when you get chance you grab, an’ off you go. But you wanna be careful not touch Lola or anyt’ing belongs her. Dis leprosy no good. Neber bring back anyt’ing. We send de tucker down in paper or old tins she can t’row away.’

‘How does she get water?’ asked Mary. ‘Does someone carry it for her?’

‘No, she go to de creek herself. It don’ matter ’cos she down de creek.’

‘Oh, but aren’t her feet bad?’

The cook shook her head slowly. ‘Dey not too bad, yet. Mebbe soon—I dunno. Anyway, you better be go now. Here de tucker. An’ ’member—be careful. Oh, yes, f’you like I got somet’ing for de box s’afternoon. You wanna tek it?’

‘Oh, good. I’ll get it when I come back.’

All the way down to Lola’s hut Mary was feeling happy that she was doing an important job that no one else wanted to do.

As she got closer, however, a worry that had been small began to gain strength.

Could she in decency put the things down for Lola to pick up, or should she do as Meg had done, hold them out for Lola to take? If she should do this, could she do it? Would her nerves stand it as those awful hands approached hers? As she drew near the hut, sweat dripped off her that could not be due to the heat of the sun, and her arms felt as if they would be incapable of moving forward to lift the parcels.

Lola soon settled the question for her. She was waiting outside, sitting on a box near the hut, and another box was placed a few yards in front of her.

‘You bin put de tucker on dat box,’ she called out to Mary. ‘Don’ you come near me. Meg she don’ tek no notice a’ me, she too bull-headed, but she should ’a’ bin do dat allatime. Don’ you be silly like her.’

Mary needed no second bidding. She felt so weak with relief that she could hardly hold the food until she reached the box.

‘It’s terrible Meg having to leave us like that, isn’t it?’ Mary said as soon as she caught her breath.

‘We bin miss her orright, but it good for her. She die to get away an’ she tell me it a good job.’

Mary didn’t say anything about the job. ‘When did she see you? I wondered how you came to be there to see her off,’ she asked.

‘Oh, she come down dis morning. She run allaway down.’

‘Phew,’ said Mary. ‘She must have run all the way back too. I don’t know how she found time.’

‘Oh,’ said Lola confidently, ‘she won’ leave ’thout tell me g’by.’

‘Well, I’ll leave you to have dinner now. I have to come back again later.’

Now, relieved of the worry about Lola, Mary’s mind turned to Meg. What a wonderful girl she was! She had had only about half an hour to get ready to go and yet she had run all that way, to say good-bye to Lola.

From Meg, her brain, weary of going in circles with questions that had no answers, switched to Jimmy. What a difference between them! Jimmy had only thought of his own troubles. She couldn’t blame him for refusing to run away with her. Her own good sense told her that would have been a foolish thing to do. But the way he had done it! He hadn’t argued about what was good for Mary, only what was good for Jimmy.

Suddenly she remembered something that had passed unnoticed at the time. Millie had started to name Jimmy with Lucy as a crawler and tale-teller; had started, and then stopped when she realized who was listening. And the cook wouldn’t say, or even think, such a thing about anyone if she hadn’t something solid to go on. Oh, how terrible!

Then another thought struck her, and she shivered under the blazing sun. If Mary thought that, then all the girls and boys thought so too. And all the time Mary had been prattling about her Jimmy, everyone was thinking that about him.

Suddenly a great problem of the past was cleared up. That was why, all the time she was going with Jimmy, the girls had seemed to be shunning her. She would come up to them as they were talking away about something and they would immediately stop, and then obviously and awkwardly change the subject. Mary had been hurt and bewildered, but now she understood. They were afraid to talk in front of her because she would pass it on to Jimmy. Or—she felt as if a cold and clammy hand touched her—had they thought she was the same?

But no, it couldn’t be that. For the last few weeks they had taken her into their confidence about everything. So it could only be that they were afraid of what she would tell Jimmy. But she would have to make sure. She must ask Sally tonight.

Only two girls sat together tonight, their arms round each other. Mary was saying: ‘It’s no use, Sally. You’ll have to stop worrying about it. You know Meg wouldn’t want it. She wanted to go, and you couldn’t possibly go, so that’s that. As far as she’s concerned, although she’s so young, I think she’s much better able to take care of herself than either of us.’

There was silence for a time; then Mary spoke again. ‘Now, listen, Sally. I must know something and I want you to tell me the truth, however bad it is. Do you think Jimmy tells tales to Quiver? Millie said something about it today.’

‘Oh,’ gasped Sally. ‘W-e-ll, yes, I t’ink so. Everybody t’ink so. De boys say dey sure, dey know for certain.’

‘Well, tell me, did any of you ever think I did?’

‘Oh, no, no, don’t be silly. We know you wouldn’t.’

‘I’m glad of that, but a little while ago you all used to seem so strange to me. I couldn’t understand it.’

‘That when you bin go out longs Jimmy. We ’fraid what you say to him. We try let you know we don’t like him, but you so mad about him you take no notice. We not bin game to say right out what we t’ink.’

‘Oh, I’m so glad. I used to think all kinds of things. But you needn’t worry about Jimmy any more. I’ve finished with him. You know, I think I’ll be like Meg. I’ll be glad to get away from here now.’

Mary’s call came a month later. The noise of a car broke in on the hubbub as the girls and boys were having tea. Everybody downed tools and rushed to peep out, in time to see a smart-looking utility pull up at the mission house. The man and woman who stepped out were spic and span, all in white; the man in a drill suit and the woman in a linen dress. This impressed the onlookers, but not half as much as did the sight of Mrs. Quivesey nearly falling down the verandah steps in her hurry to greet the visitors. This stamped them as being very important.

As the youngsters settled down to eat again, speculation ran wild on the visitors and their business here. Millie caught Mary’s eye and beckoned her over. ‘This bin job for you,’ she said, nodding towards the house.

‘Oh,’ said Mary, ‘are you sure? How do you know?’

‘I know de people. Dey sebrul times bin here. Las’ time, ’bout two year ago, dey took Rita, ’member?’

‘Oh, yes, I remember. But how do you know they will take me this time?’

“Cos dey on’y want de best. Gel gotta be smart in looks as well as work for dis job. Missus tell me der place so flash de gels gotta get dressed up to do de work. Dey talk missus on de pedal wyluss an’ on’y come if she say she got good gel.’

‘Ooh, I hope they want me then,’ Mary said eagerly. ‘I would like to go to a big flash place.’

‘Uhuh, might be orright, I dunno. Big flash place tek lotta work to keep clean. But mebbe not much diffrunce. Any job dere be plenty work. Dey don’ come here for coloured gels jus’ ’cos dey likes dem. You better finish your tea now, ’cos missus might be send for you any minit.’

Millie was soon proved to be right. Lucy’s thin face appeared in the doorway and her thin voice squeaked, ‘Mary, Missus Quivesey wants you, quick.’

Mary was all excitement as she hurried up to the house. All the tales that were told of the strife coloured girls met with on station jobs made any of them a bit doubtful of leaving the mission. But this job sounded so different, as if everything would be so proper and orderly. By the time she reached the steps to the verandah she was worrying, not at the thought of going, but from fear that something might go wrong and she might not get the job.

Mrs. Quivesey was waiting for her on the verandah, and started to harangue her in a sibilant whisper before Mary was off the top step. Though temporarily removed from the influence of her visitors, Mrs. Quivesey’s manner still exuded oiliness, as a roast of fat pork drips grease for some time after being taken out of the oven. In sympathy with her manner, the blubbery face glistened greasily in the dim light.

Being somewhat distrait with worry, Mary couldn’t absorb all the breathless whisper. ‘. . . lady . . . asked . . . good girl . . . her house. . . . Honour . . . Kuralla . . . good patron . . . expect you to work hard, be . . . a credit . . . wonderful opportun­ity . . . learn to work . . . best of homes. . . .’ A pause for breath.

Then she continued more slowly and emphatically. ‘You will be paid the full rate for an experienced woman—seven shillings and sixpence a week.’ She paused to let the full significance of this statement sink in. ‘This is a chance few girls can ever get, and I hope you will be properly grateful.’

Here Mrs. Quivesey approached her usual manner. ‘Now, I’ll take you in so that the lady can have a look at you. Remember your manners, and only speak when you’re spoken to. And when you’re asked a question, just answer the question, don’t talk about other things. Hold yourself straight, don’t slouch. That’s better. Now follow me, and remember what I have told you.’

In the main room of the house, simply furnished with a table and a few cane chairs, sat the visitors. Mary’s first timid glance, as she followed Mrs. Quivesey in, took in the fact that the lady was sitting upright in the centre of the room, while behind her, over near the wall, the man lolled back in a low lounge chair.

‘Mrs. Foster,’ said Mrs. Quivesey in an ingratiating tone, ‘this is Mary, the girl I spoke to you about. I am sure you will find her quite satisfactory.’

As Mary bobbed in the manner approved before superiors, and stood with downcast eyes, she did not need the admonition of Mrs. Quivesey to keep her silent and respectful. Conscious of her bare feet and shapeless cotton dress, she felt mean and humble in the presence of this cold magnificence.

With Mrs. Foster the motif was coolness. A well-preserved thirty-five or so, she was good-looking in a cold and distant way, and though now coolly clad in white from head to toe, with the only touch of colour an ice-blue silk kerchief loosely knotted round her throat, she gave the impression that she would still look cold even if swathed in heavy furs.

Had Mary been looking she would have seen a marked difference in Mr. Foster. On her entry, his lassitude disappeared.

After a cold appraisal, which would have sent hot flushes over Mary had she not been intently studying the floor, Mrs. Foster said, ‘Mm, yes, well grown, might look quite neat if properly dressed.’

Then, to Mrs. Quivesey, ‘You say this girl is a good worker, but is she properly disciplined?’

‘Oh, Mrs. Foster,’ Mrs. Quivesey smirked, ‘you know my girls are all well disciplined.’

‘I know that the last one I took from here was not too particular where she put her fingers. Here, girl, look up at me!’ Mary raised her eyes. ‘Do you ever feel tempted to take things that are not yours?’

Mary flushed now and a look of horror came into her face. She shook her head violently. ‘Oh, no!’

‘Well, I have just been telling Mrs. Quivesey that I caught the last girl I took from here opening a drawer in my private desk. I turned her over to the police to go to gaol. I want you to understand thoroughly what will happen to you if any similar temptation should come to you.’

‘Oh,’ murmured Mary, ‘I couldn’t.’

‘May be you could not. But just see to it that you do not. Now I want you to understand that if you come with me you will be well fed, well dressed, and well paid, and in return I shall expect you to be willing to work. The work will not be hard, but it must be done properly, and you may be called upon to work long hours sometimes. Do you understand?’

‘Oh, yes.’

‘Now, let me hear you say something. You must be able to speak English. I will not tolerate pidgin in my house. Go on, say something. Say you can speak English or something.’

‘I can speak English fairly well, ma’am, and I think you will find me a good worker.’

‘Mm, that will do. Well, Mrs. Quivesey, we will take this girl. We shall be leaving—when?’ She turned to her husband.

He stood up, a tall slim man in his forties, a good-looking but rather weak face seeming intensely brown against the white of his shirt and suit.

‘Oh, I’m not fussy. Nine o’clock would suit me. We’ll only go as far as Wodalla for lunch, shall we?’

‘Right. You will have the girl ready then, Mrs. Quivesey? She can go now.’

Mary left the house with her head in a whirl. She was still prepared to accept Mrs. Quivesey’s word that this was a great opportunity for her, but the overpowering Mrs. Foster had left her with a feeling of numbness, and a doubt as to whether she would be able to measure up to that lady’s strict standards.

So she headed for the kitchen to see if she could unburden herself to Millie, and perhaps get a bit of advice. As she looked in at the kitchen door she saw that the cook was just poking about getting things ready for the morning, while two of the girls were finishing the washing-up.

‘Ah, there you are, dearie, come on in. I just bin wonderin’ how you got on. No, not now,’ as Mary started to speak. ‘Wait a minit. We bin jus’ ’bout finish, an’ den we sit down longs my hut an’ you tell all about it.’

A few minutes later, finished for the night, Millie took a hurricane lamp and led the way to her hut, only a few yards away. She pointed to a box as she sank down on the bed. ‘You sit on de box, dearie. Dis bed got ’nough with me. Jus’ as well I stopped growin’, ain’t it?’

The little camp-bed certainly had ‘ ’nough’. As Mary lay back it was nearly hidden from sight. ‘Fear I’s gettin’ old, dearie. Me feets get very tired. ’Course, dey’s gotta fair load to carry. Now, tell us what go on. D’you get de big job?’

‘Oh, yes, I’m to leave in the morning.’

‘Good, or is it good? What you t’ink of it?’

‘Well, I don’t know quite what to think of it. Mrs. Quivesey says it’s a wonderful opportunity, a good job, and a chance to learn. I suppose it is, but the white lady—Mrs. Foster they call her—seems a bit hard, makes you wonder if you could please her.’

‘How she look? She bin hold her head up an’ look down her nose?’

‘Oh, no, she looks straight at you, too straight. Her eyes are so hard and cold. She makes you feel like shivering.’

‘An’ what de job, dey bin tell you ’bout it?’

‘Oh, yes, the job sounds all right. She says the work isn’t hard, but it is long hours. And everything must be done properly, but she doesn’t need to tell you that, you only have to look at her to know that. Really, it seems the kind of job I would like. I wouldn’t expect not to have to work.’

‘No, you need’n’ worry ’bout that, any job you go. Dey don’ come all dis way to git coloured gels for ornymint. Dey don’ go to mission jus’ to git gels who chrischuns, know all ’bout Jesus. Dey’s no Jesus on de stations. Dey want mission gels ’cos dey is been learnt to work.’

‘Anyway, there’s not much use in worrying about it because I have to go,’ said Mary with a shrug. She thought for a minute. ‘What about Lola now? I can’t think of anyone to ask to look after her. I can’t ask Sally now she’s sure she’s going to have a baby.’

‘Don’ you worry ’bout Lola.’ Millie waved her hand. ‘I fix dat. I get somebody orright. You’s got ’nough to worry ’bout looking after you’self, now you bin goin’ on de stations. I bin on de stations myself ’fore I come here, an’ I know. Mos’ly de white women bin make you work all de day, an’ de white men wants you work half de night.’

Mary looked startled. ‘Oh, but I don’t think this place would be like that. This Mrs. Foster would be too strict.’

‘I dunno. I never bin see no place like dat.’

‘But surely all the coloured girls don’t have to sleep with white men?’

‘No, not all mebbe.’ Millie turned her head to look round her huge bosom, and her face had a wide grin. ‘Some too ugly, nobody want. But it hard for good-looking gel like you. De white men bin want you an’ de white women bin crooked on you. Mos’ places de women won’ have any gel like you. ’Cos all de white women is sure deir husban’s is chase de coloured gels. Like Mr. Quivesey. You know an’ I know dat he don’ chase de gels—he might like to, but he don’—but missus she sure he do.’

Mary’s mouth dropped open with horror. ‘Oh, Millie, surely that’s not true. Mrs. Quivesey wouldn’t think that.’

‘Oh, no!’ scoffed the cook. ‘You should see de missus when she watch Quivesey, when he watch you. ’Course, he get dat look in him eye, but he on’y dream.’

She turned back to look at the roof. ‘Well, anyway, dat’s how de women are, an’ you get nothin’ from dem. Some o’ de men’s not too bad, you got a chance to get somet’ing.’

‘Oh, but I’ve been worried about that. I don’t mind work, but I don’t much fancy being played about with by white men. One good thing about this job, I thought, it wouldn’t be like that.’

‘Might be, might be not. But I don’ think it much to worry ’bout. An’ f’you gits caught s’not much use worryin’. It on’y natcheral. But de main thing is don’ be too easy. Be hard an’ git somet’ing for you’self. Might be a better job, or better tucker, but allus try to git somet’ing. It on’y chance you got.’

Mary sighed and shook her head sadly. Then she stood up. ‘Oh, well, I’d better go, and let you get some sleep. I’ll remember what you told me. Good night.’

‘G’night, dearie. An’ ’member, you’s pretty enough to do good for you’self, but you mus’ be hard.’

Everybody had come out to see Mary off, but there was not the same tension as when Meg left. All knew that Mary was going to a flash job and so was to be envied rather than pitied.

When she walked over to put her tiny bundle in the ute, the others hung well back. They were overawed by the obvious superiority of these two whites.

Mr. Quivesey was hovering round with a harassed expression on his face. ‘Good-bye, Mary,’ he said as she climbed into the back of the utility. ‘Be a good girl. We wish you luck. We shall miss you very much.’

‘Thank you, Mr. Quivesey,’ replied Mary with a somewhat tremulous smile. ‘I’m sure I shall miss you and the harmoni­um. You have been so kind.’

Between trying to register disapproval of Mr. Quivesey, and fawning upon Mrs. Foster with an expression like a stricken cod, Mrs. Quivesey’s quivers were very much in evidence.

Mr. Foster arranged things to make a seat for Mary. ‘Here you are, sit up the front here near the cabin, not at the back, it’s too rough there. And remember to hang on when we get going, there are a lot of bumps.’

Mrs. Foster’s eyes looked cold as an icicle twinkling in the early morning sun. ‘David,’ she snapped, ‘shall we go now?’

‘Oh, yes, certainly,’ he replied.

With a lift of his hand to Mr. Quivesey, a frigid nod to Mrs. Quivesey from Mrs. Foster, and a tearful smile and a wave from Mary, the ute leaped forward and they were gone.

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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