No Sunlight Singing

Book Two, Chapter 5

No one could say the road was rough. There was no road, not even what could be called a track; just a passable way through obstacles.

The country showed a bitter face, an old face seamed and scarred by youthful excesses. The countless wrinkles of harsh, stony hills and hollows were lightly veiled in grey, the hard greeny-grey of spinifex and scanty-leafed, gnarled and twisted scrub.

As the driver edged his way along the hollows, dodging boulders and logs, with the car occasionally sidling down into a gully to buck its way over the further bank, Mary shuddered to think she had once suggested going walkabout through this country. She realized this must form part of her earliest recollections dimmed through time but renewed in nightmares—endless walking, with tired legs, sore feet, and burning throat.

Soon they began to strike patches of more open red-soil country where the ute could run along easily. After a couple of hours this red-soil country started to predominate and, except for patches of thick scrub and some sharp gullies, the going was fairly good.

About noon they passed the spot where Mary’s mother had died, but it awoke no memories. Half an hour or so later they pulled up at Wodalla Station. The little store was directly facing Mary. Now her memory stirred—that lovely bag of lollies.

Mr. and Mrs. Foster got out of the ute and Mr. Foster said, ‘You can get out now, we’ll be staying for lunch.’

A little grey-haired lady called out from the verandah: ‘Oh, you’re back, eh? Come on in, lunch will soon be ready. Oh, you got your girl.’

She bustled out and smiled at Mary. ‘Look, you go along the side of the house there. You’ll see a gate at the back, just go through there and up to the kitchen, the cook will fix you up.’

When they left, an hour and a half later, Mary’s spirits had soared to the skies. The coloured cook and the other girls had all seemed so happy. Life on the stations could not be so bad after all.

From here on there was a well-defined track which was rough enough in places, but permitted a good speed. The bouncing of the truck, and the sun and dust, soon became matters of importance. Mary found herself gripping the sides tightly to prevent herself from being thrown about and to take some of the strain off her seat. The dust swirling in at the back burned her eyes and throat and gave her a raging thirst. So, when the truck pulled up after four hours’ straight running, Mary was mighty glad to be at Malcolm Downs, and just then she didn’t care whether it was good, bad, or indifferent.

Mary jumped to the ground and stood wavering a little on unsteady legs, blinking her eyes to shake off the blurring caused by sun and dust. Her first impression was of a huge house walled with fire, as the glass louvers reflected the rays of the lowering sun. She had only time for the one impression, for, immediately, a little coloured woman neatly dressed in white bounced out and bobbed in front of Mrs. Foster. Mary was intrigued by this woman’s face, as it was the colour of the ordinary half aboriginal, but with strange features, little straight nose and slanting eyes.

‘Yes, Mrs. Lowe, here is the new girl—er—Mary, I think she is called. You can show her to her quarters. Send Anna in. We will have a cup of tea at once.’

The little woman bobbed again, turned to Mary, waved her hand, and said, ‘Come with me.’ Then she swung round and went so fast that by the time Mary had picked up her bundle she had to run to catch up. And then she had to break into a jog-trot occasionally to keep on the woman’s heels. They did not go through the house, but round it to the back verandah, which they reached up a short flight of steps, as the house was on stumps, about three feet off the ground. To the left of them, as they mounted the steps, was what was obviously the kitchen, partly on the verandah and partly jutting out from it, with the chimney at the far end. This arrangement made it seem as though the kitchen had been stuck on to the house as an afterthought, instead of, as was the case, being deliberately placed there to keep the heat of the stove as far from the house as possible.

To the right, the verandah was partitioned off in little cubicles. At one of these Mrs. Lowe stopped. The door was open and Mary could see two beds, which took up most of the space. Mrs. Lowe pointed to one of these. ‘That will be your bed, the other one is Anna’s. Now, you can’t be seen in the house in those clothes.’ She wrinkled her nose in disgust. ‘After dinner I’ll get you the clothes you will wear while you are here. But for the moment I’ll show you where you can have a shower and then you can help the cook until dinner-time. Oh, there you are, Anna,’ in a tone of voice as if she had been searching for months. ‘Tell the cook to make tea immediately and you run in and see Mrs. Foster; she is waiting for you.’

Mary turned to see a slim, good-looking coloured girl of about twenty, dressed in a pale green cotton dress. At Mrs. Lowe’s orders, she turned quickly and grabbed a little white cap and apron from where they were hanging on a cupboard door. She hurried off, putting on the cap and apron as she went.

‘The shower is down here,’ and the little woman raced off down the verandah, past the kitchen. When Mary got there she saw a little shower recess between the kitchen wall and the corner of the house. It had unlined galvanized-iron walls, zinc-covered floor, and a shower rose as sole furnishing.

‘Now, come with me to see the cook and then you can have your shower.’

The cook was tall, thin, and nearly black, with a plain, almost ugly face, made comely by perpetually twinkling eyes.

‘Bessie, this is Mary, the new girl. She will not be working with you, of course, but I am busy now. So when she has her wash you can find her something to do until dinner-time. Right?’ And away she went.

Bessie pulled a face. ‘Pooh, she gallop about make everybody think she do all the work. Sit down, child, and I’ll get you a cup of tea in a minute soon as this fixed.’

She saw Mary’s eyes on the sparkling silver teapot and fine china cups and saucers she was arranging on a tray. ‘Flash, eh? This flash place—too flash, make too much work.’

And, as Anna now came in for the tray, ‘Oh, Anna, this Mary, your new offsider.’ Anna looked hard but said nothing. ‘You coming back for a cup o’ tea?’ asked Bessie.

‘If I can get away,’ Anna flung over her shoulder as she hurried out.

‘Nice girl, Anna, when she not sulking. She sulk a bit now, but she soon get over it. But that Mrs. Lowe—she bit black, bit white, and bit Jap, an’ she got the bad of all three. It not too bad when the missus away, but when they both here nobody can do anything right. You got one on you, then you got t’other on you, and then you got both together.’

Mary looked a bit dazed.

‘Don’t worry, child. Take no notice o’ me, I talk all the time. Here’s your cup o’ tea, that’ll make you feel better. Then, when you had your shower, you can sit down an’ talk to me. You can keep hold of a knife, then you peeling spuds if anybody come in. You won’t have another cup? All right, then, have your shower. Have you got a towel?’

Yes, Mary had a towel. Indeed, it was the greater part of her luggage. ‘Well, off you go, then. Come back here when you’re finished, but don’t hurry.’

When Mary went back to the kitchen she was feeling much better after the cup of tea and a wash, but she was sorely conscious of her Mother Hubbard here where everybody was so neat. Even the cook had on a dress like Anna’s, faded but clean. She was relieved to see that Anna was not in the kitchen. Instead there were two bright-looking girls; one was small, slight, and dark, while the other one was much more sturdily built and had a brown complexion.

‘Oh, Mary, these my two girls. This little one here, she the oldest, ’bout seventeen. We call her Whip, short for whipper-snapper. This big one, she not sixteen yet, but she a tough one. We call her Judy, short for Judy ’Scariot, ’cos she sell you for two bob.’

The two girls grinned widely but said nothing. Probably they knew from experience that they didn’t have a chance of getting a word in when their mother was in full swing.

‘We live ’long there, near you an’ Anna,’ continued Bessie.

‘My husban’ dead long time. Horse fell on him. Here you are. Sit down there near these spuds. Hold the knife, but don’t peel any spuds ’less somebody comes in. Now tell me all about yourself. I s’pose you came from Kuralla Mission, did you? We get . . .’

After dinner Mary was helping with the washing-up when Mrs. Lowe called her out. The little woman led the way to a small room just inside the house. She unlocked the door and Mary saw that the walls were lined with shelves stacked with linen, sheets, tea towels, towels, and other household goods. On one shelf were pale green cotton dresses like those the girls wore.

Mrs. Lowe sorted out two dresses and held them up against Mary. ‘Yes, they’ll do. Now these dresses will be yours and you must always have them clean and tidy. Now the way we work it is this. Before dinner, ready for the evening’s work, setting tables, waiting on table, and so on, you put on a clean dress. Next morning you wear this dress for the scrubbing and polishing and other cleaning. Then after lunch, when you have a couple of hours’ break, you wash that dress and hang it out to dry. When you start work again you wear the other clean dress. Then after dinner when the work is finished you iron the first dress so that it is ready for the following afternoon. You understand that?’ Mary nodded.

Mrs. Lowe went to another shelf. ‘Here are two caps and aprons. These you wear and keep clean on the same system as the dresses. You understand? Now we provide you with the cap and the apron, but the dresses are yours. They are booked against your wages. You understand? You pay for them with your wages.’

‘Yes, I understand. I pay for the dresses.’

‘Yes, that’s it. Now here are some underclothes. Do you want to buy some of these?’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Mary eagerly. ‘I’d love to have some of those.’

‘Well, I’ll let you have one set now. Later, when you have some credit, you can get more. Understand? When your wages have paid for these you can get more.’

‘Yes, I understand that.’

‘Good. Then in the morning you start work with Anna. She’ll show you what to do if I’m not there.’

‘Come on, time to get up,’ came Bessie’s voice softly, and Mary, all keyed up for the new job, was out of bed before she had finished speaking. She had finished dressing in the half-light of dawn before Anna got out of bed and switched the light on. The electric light from the station’s own plant was a new experience for Mary, and she had not yet got used to treating switches with familiarity.

When she had washed, Mary waited for Anna to lead the way. She was too shy to ask questions of the girl who was taking care to show she was not friendly. The kitchen was the first port of call. Bessie’s ‘Good morning’ drew a reply from Mary and a grunt from Anna.

Bessie pointed to a kerosene-tin standing on the stove. ‘Your water’s hot, and here’s a cup o’ tea ready. You can make time for that.’

‘Have to hurry,’ grunted Anna, ‘the Jap will be on the job this morning.’

Between gulps of tea Anna divided the hot water into two buckets, and produced cloths and scrubbing-brushes. As they went out she picked two brooms out of a corner and handed one to Mary, then they went into the house. They put the buckets down in a huge room which must have taken up about a third of the house. It had a highly polished floor and was sparsely furnished with tubular chrome-steel chairs and tables. In one corner stood a piano, and near it a wireless set. Anna had begun to feel she must speak when Mrs. Lowe darted in and saved her. Without a word of greeting, Mrs. Lowe started Mary on the day’s work.

‘This floor has to be scrubbed today but first you can do the dining-room while Anna does this room over here. What you have to do is sweep the room out first. Then you go over it and wash any dirty spots. You don’t wash all over the floor today, but be careful to find and properly clean any dirty marks. Then you come out here and together you and Anna sweep and thoroughly scrub all this floor. By the time you have finished that, the dining-room floor will be dry enough to polish and you polish it before breakfast. Polishing this floor can be left till after breakfast. Now you have to be thorough and quick. Naturally the sooner you get the work done the better for yourself and the others, but remember that Mr. and Mrs. Foster are asleep so you must work quietly. Watch you don’t bump the furniture or rattle the bucket. I think that’s all for now.’

Poor Mary worked feverishly, with a constant nightmare fear of knocking the bucket or bumping the table or making some such shattering noise. At first she could see no dirty marks, then she found one that might be called dirty. This led to others of varying degrees and the problem was where to draw the line. By the time she was finished she was dripping with sweat and the floor was spotted like a leopard.

When she went into the big room she was mortified to see that Anna had scrubbed a big section of it. Anna said nothing but looked at her with what seemed to be a mixture of scorn and triumph. Mary got down on her knees, determined to show she could work, but no matter how hard she worked Anna’s scrubbed patch grew faster than hers. By the time the floor was finished she was aching physically and mentally.

‘I’m sorry I’m so slow, Anna,’ she murmured. Anna looked as if she were on the point of relenting, but she just grunted and went out, to return in a minute with two sets of polishing gear. Before Mary had half-finished polishing the dining-room, Anna was in to set the table for breakfast. This finished, the girls went to the kitchen to snatch a hasty breakfast themselves. Before Anna had properly finished, she had to jump up to take in the white folks’ meal. Mary made to get up too, but Bessie waved her down.

‘Nothing you can do, Mary. Soon you go with Anna do the bedrooms, but now you might’s well have another cup.’

It continued all day, making beds, dusting, sweeping, or polishing. Mary was all the time straining to keep up, but always lagging.

Soon after breakfast, Mrs. Lowe called her away from where she was working, cleaning a bedroom. ‘Come with me, Mary. Yes, leave that for now. You can come back to it later.’

She led the way into the dining-room. ‘Now, Mary, have a look at this floor. See there,’ she pointed to a spot on the floor, ‘The polish has hardly been rubbed up at all. And here, see’—Mary squinted sideways to get the reflection of the light on the floor, but could see no difference—‘it looks as if hardly any polish has been used at all. Now we make allowances for you, as no doubt any kind of slipshod work is good enough at the mission, but here we insist that the work be done thoroughly. We don’t expect you to be as quick as Anna for a start, but we do expect you to do the work properly. Now get your cloths and polish and go over the whole floor again. Make sure this time that you don’t miss any of it.’

Mary nodded dumbly and hurried away for the polish. It hurt her to be told her work was so bad, but to be accused of skimping it when she had tried so hard—oh, she thought, how cruel!

The crowning indignity came late in the morning when Mary was polishing the furniture in the dining-room. Mrs. Foster and Mrs. Lowe walked in. ‘Mm,’ said Mrs. Foster, ‘this floor is very patchy today, Mrs. Lowe. Get the girl to give it a good rub up, will you!’

Mary was near to tears as she started once again on that hateful floor.

During the afternoon she managed to catch Bessie alone in the kitchen and told her woeful tale. ‘I tried so hard, Bessie,’ she ended, ‘but it’s no use.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ said Bessie. ‘Every new job hard for anybody. You got get used to it, learn the tricks. My girls go on that job some time when they short of a girl and first they always tired and mad. To do a job fast you got to learn how little to do and the easy way to do it. Besides, the mood Anna is in, she’d be going fast to show you up. Take no notice of it. Anna should show you how to do things ’stead of being such a pig.’

‘That’s the chief thing worrying me, Bessie. What have I done wrong that Anna is so sore at me?’

‘You done nothing, child. It’s just that she’s jealous. I won’t tell you anything about it. Best is you ask her. Wait till you in your room tonight an’ ask her what she crooked for. If she start to talk she get it off her chest, an’ then she be all right. She’s nice girl, Anna.’

Mary peeled off her cap, apron, and housedress and hung them on nails hammered into the joists of the partition. In her newly acquired plain cotton slip she looked very young, like a schoolgirl. Then with a sigh she sank on to her bed. Sank is the right word, but it was not the kind of luxurious sinking that takes the recliner softly into the depths of a downy mattress.

This sinking was a slow lowering of the body over the frame of the bed, to come to rest several inches lower on the hammock-shaped wire mattress, which sullenly squeaked to announce that thus far had it stretched but would go no further; from now on all the give and take would have to be provided by the body of the sleeper. Mary’s bed, like Anna’s, was of the wooden-framed type with folding legs, and a sagging wire mattress with a stout wooden cross-piece at the spot where the sleeper’s shoulder blades occur.

Inhospitable the bed might be, but Mary was so worn out that all her body desired was to be allowed to fall asleep at once. She forced herself to stay awake and covertly studied her room-mate. She didn’t have far to look. Her bed was hard up against one galvanized-iron partition wall, Anna’s was touching the other one and there was a space of about two feet between the two. No ceiling hid the iron roof, and, for the other two walls, iron surrounded, on the one side, the doorway, and on the other an unglazed, shuttered window.

The only furnishing, other than the beds, was a cupboard formed by two boxes standing one on the other, between the beds and under the window. In these boxes were a few odds and ends, the only noteworthy item being a pair of shoes. These were plain and serviceable enough as women’s shoes go, but to Mary who had never worn any, nor seen any except on white folks’ feet, they seemed very high class indeed.

From the shoes her gaze turned to Anna, with a mixture of hope and fear. Anna, also clad in a slip, was lying as straight on her back as the bed would allow, her face still sullen and her gaze on the roof. Mary gulped and swallowed and made two attempts before she managed to murmur: ‘Anna, can’t we be friends? What have I done wrong?’

Anna sat up with a jerk. ‘Be friends! What have you done wrong? You only come here to take my man, that’s all. An’ you say be friends. What you think I am?’

‘But I didn’t come here to take your man. I don’t even know him. I don’t want any man.’

‘You don’t want any man? But that not matter. He want you. That’s trouble.’

Mary was sitting up, looking wide-eyed at Anna. ‘But who is your man? I don’t know any man here.’

‘Mr. Foster, of course. He my man, but he go for any new girl that come.’

Mary gasped. ‘Mr. Foster! Oh, but, Anna, that’s ridiculous. He’s never even looked at me. And I’m sure I don’t want him to. And what about Mrs. Foster? Don’t tell me she’ll let him play around with anybody.’

Anna nodded her head knowingly. ‘He look at you, all right. I seen him. But if I didn’t see him I still know what happen. It always happen. An’, as for Mrs. Foster, pooh, she don’t care what he does when she not here, an’ she often away. Then he play.’

‘You mean that when Mrs. Foster goes away he’ll take me? But I don’t want him. I don’t want anything like that.’

Anna looked curiously at Mary and saw her agitation. Her face softened and she said: ‘Well, don’t get all worried about it. I know I can’t blame you, anyhow, but I get mad an’ worried an’ I can’t help it. You see, I been his girl two years now, but when some fresh girl come here he always try them out. He come back to me after, but I worry ’cos sometime he might not. I getting old now an’ he might stick with a younger girl.’

‘Oh, but, Anna,’ said Mary in an amazed tone, ‘you don’t look much older than me, and so smart. I don’t see how any man wouldn’t want you, at least before me.’

‘Look, I show you,’ said Anna, jumping to her feet and pulling off her slip. She pivoted slowly, the light gleaming on her slim brown body, and the smooth swell of her hips tapering gracefully down to neat calves and ankles.

‘Well, what’s wrong with that?’ asked Mary. ‘You look beautiful to me.’

‘You stand up too an’ strip off, then you see.’

Mary did as required. Then looked down at herself and over at Anna. ‘I suppose I’m a bit lighter colour than you. Is that what you mean?’

‘No, no,’ said Anna scornfully, ‘Mr. Foster don’t care about colour, an’ he say he don’t care much about face, he got his eye on the figure. See your breasts. They point straight out. If a man there it look like they reach out, try to get to him. Now, see mine. They start to sag. That the trouble.’

‘Oh, Anna,’ said Mary blushing, ‘you say terrible things. But I can’t understand how a man is going to worry about a little thing like that.’

‘Sometime when he in the mood Mr. Foster have you walk about an’ then stan’ like this, or this.’ Anna struck a few poses. ‘He say he like to watch the female form an’ his artistic eye can’t stand any fault. Last time I with him he say, “Anna, in bed your line is colossal, but out of bed I fear your line is slipping.” An’ he pointed to my breasts.’

Mary shuddered. ‘Oh, Anna, you frighten me—parading around naked in front of a man—oh, that would be worse than being in bed with him. I don’t think I could stand it.’ She peered searchingly at Anna. ‘Are you really serious? If you are I think I’ll have to run away.’

Anna dropped back on the bed and looked pityingly at the other girl. ‘I serious all right, but what so bad about being naked when the weather warm? In a few weeks it winter an’ we get cold nights, then you want clo’es, but not like this. As for talk of run away, that stupid. Where you run to? There’s no place for a hundred miles. An’ what you say you run away from?’

She paused for a moment, but Mary had no reply. Anna waved her hand. ‘There, you see, nothing you can say. If you got to another station they only send you back. Even if you got to town the policeman bring you back, ’cos they say you run away from work. An’ if you wander around you meet some other man. He treat you a dam’ sight worse than Mr. Foster.’

At this thought Anna grew indignant. She said severely: ‘I think you’re crazy to talk like that. Mr. Foster’s a nice man. He’s good man to make love with. An’ how’s that hurt you? It do you good.’

Mary was looking dazed and doubtful, and Anna’s voice softened. ‘Anyway, she might be here a long time yet. You got plenty time to worry. An’ don’t let anybody hear you talk about running away. They wouldn’t like that. An’ don’t ever let Mrs. Foster hear any word about what he does when she away. She know it all right, but if anybody say a word she’ll go raving mad.’

Mary looked a bit better, but her voice was tremulous. ‘Oh, I won’t say anything. And if there’s time to wait, something might happen.’

It was a different job altogether, with Anna friendly. As they went down on their knees next morning to start scrubbing, Mary’s spirits sank at the thought of yesterday’s heartbreak. But Anna whispered: ‘You scrub too much. just wipe it with the wet cloth, that take the dirt. If you scrub you take all polish, everything.’

‘Oh, but Mrs. Lowe told me you must scrub hard.’

‘Mrs. Lowe boss, an’ boss like to see you work hard. If she come you use brush, but not hard. It too hard to polish after. There nothing need scrubbing, that all bull. After they have party you got to scrub though. Beer an’ plonk spilt everywhere; it take some getting off.’

As the days went by Mary improved, and she soon could get through her share of the work. Still she had to keep hurrying, and could find no time for spells. She noticed too that even Anna didn’t have much time to spare. She mentioned it to her one day.

‘Oh, yes,’ Anna replied , ‘they keep us moving all right. But you haven’t seen it when dust-storms blow. Then you really flat out, like lizards drinking. Mrs. Foster’ll have you dusting all day. She crazy to have things clean. Fancy try to keep a place big as this clean in a dust-storm. Thank God she goes away. It’s lot easier when she’s away. The Jap’s bad enough, but the two of ’em —ugh!’

‘Does Mrs. Foster stay away long?’ asked Mary.

‘Oh, you never know. She might be away a month, or three months. Last year she away six month.’

Mary didn’t ask Anna again about Mr. Foster and his lovemaking. It seemed so unlikely in a place like this, she wondered if Anna hadn’t been exaggerating or maybe having a joke with her. She tried to keep half an eye on Mr. Foster and thought she could see a gleam in his eye at times, but thought this was probably imagination.

If Anna had told the truth she would soon have to make a decision on a question that had bothered her for a long time—what to do if a man forced himself on her. According to the talk at the mission, backed up by what Anna said, it was ordinary practice for white men to use coloured girls as they liked. Mary had always thought this was probably exaggerated, but there must be some truth in it. Her instinct was to fight against anything like that, partly because she had been taught it was not right, but mainly because she revolted at the thought of someone she didn’t like crawling over her.

But the question was, how much risk and trouble was she prepared to face to try to keep untouched, and could she possibly win? Everybody seemed agreed that she couldn’t and that it wasn’t worth trying. If that was right, then Millie the cook’s advice was good—to play it hard and try to get something for yourself. All Mary’s thoughts seemed able to do were to go round and round.

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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