No Sunlight Singing

Book Two, Chapter 6

One evening Mr. and Mrs. Foster went out in the car. What a relief! Work was finished by six o’clock with no whites to feed. After the luxury of a good, long, leisurely meal they relaxed for the evening. Bessie produced an old gramophone and Whip and Judy played it and danced on the verandah. Bessie came into the girls’ room and settled down for a gossip.

Bessie and Anna, but mostly Bessie, talked of this one and that one, until they came round to Rita.

Mary butted in. ‘Tell me what happened to Rita? Mrs. Foster said she had caught her stealing and she had gone to gaol. Is that right?’

Bessie and Anna laughed. ‘She never steal nothing,’ Bessie said. ‘Might be she go to gaol. I dunno. But Mrs. Foster got police, an’ they took her away.’

‘But if she wasn’t stealing, why did the police take her?’

‘Oh, Mrs. Foster told police she caught Rita stealing. That why they took her. Rita wasn’t stealing but she do something worse far’s Mrs. Foster concerned—she looking for the missus’s love-letters. Two, three, times Rita found the drawer not locked when she do the bedroom while the folks have breakfas’, an’ she read some letters.’ She laughed again. ‘Rita could read good, an’ she could remember. She used to tell us what in the letters—good, eh, Anna? You be surprised the stuff her boy friend write Mrs. Foster, eh, Anna, wouldn’t she?’

‘I say she be surprise’, ’ chuckled Anna. ‘ ’Magine that woman, look like she freezing, or freeze you, anyway, an’ she called “honey bunch”, an’ “light o’ my life”, an’ “dear heart” an’, oh, everything.’

‘Yes,’ added Bessie, ‘an’ he can’t live without her, “the days seem so long”—ooh, she must burn when she get going. You see,’ she said to Mary, ‘Mrs. Foster got a man in Adelaide. That why she away so often. She don’t go live with him all the time ’cos he got a wife, too. So Mr. and Mrs. Foster they live here so good an’ proper. Then she go to her boy friend for couple months, an’ while she away he play up here.’

‘That was a terrible thing for Rita to do,’ said Mary, ‘to read Mrs. Foster’s letters like that.’

‘It terrible all right,’ chuckled Bessie. ‘Terrible for Rita; she got caught. But you should heard her telling us. Oh, you’d laugh. Before that we didn’t know why the missus away so long. Nobody’d ever think she could be lover like that. Why, even when she first come here, when they first married, she always look cold, never like lover.

‘Hey, Judy,’ as the girls whirled along past the door, ‘can’t you play something else? You wear out that “Lily of Lagoon”. ’

Whip and Judy came to the doorway. ‘We try to learn shottish,’ said Judy. ‘Whip reckon she know but I don’t think it right. What about you show us, Anna?’

Anna started to say no, but the two young faces looked so wistful, the brown eyes mournful, and pleading as only brown eyes can.

‘All right,’ said Anna resignedly, ‘but just once. I too tired to play with you kids.’

As she went out and the ‘Lily of Laguna’ blared forth again Bessie explained to Mary: ‘You see the boss show Anna how to dance. Some time when he get half-drunk he like to dance, so he learn Anna.’

‘Then it’s right,’ asked Mary, her face clouding over. ‘When Mrs. Foster goes away Mr. Foster plays with the coloured girls?’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Bessie. ‘Why, you think somebody tell lies?’

‘Oh, no, but I wondered if Anna was having a joke with me because I’m from the mission and know nothing.’

‘He play all right! You soon find out when she go away. He be after you quick smart. Won’t he, Anna?’ as she came back panting and threw herself on the bed.

‘What that?’ Anna asked.

‘I just tell Mary the boss soon be have her when he on his own again.’

‘Too right, he will. An’ she crooked on it. Now you can understand I be crooked ’cos I want him and he want her. But why she crooked? She even talk about run away.’

‘Oh, you wouldn’t, would you, Mary?’ exclaimed Bessie with great concern in her voice. ‘Don’t ever do anything silly like that, child. You run away from man an’ what you find—other men who treat you worse, an’ if you don’t find other men you die of thirst.’

‘Yes, but what can I do?’ asked Mary, her voice a bit tremulous. ‘I don’t want men like that. I want to get married properly. My mother when she died left word that I was to learn to be like the whites and to marry a white man. I don’t mind that so much, to marry one, but I don’t want this kind of thing.’

‘Well, you might marry a white man easy enough if you get to Darwin. I don’t think it much good in this country, but in Darwin must be easy ’cos Mrs. Lowe married one there one time. If she can get one you should be able to. But this other bizness. I don’t see how you can help it, or how it hurt you. After all, if you want catch a white man you want some practice.’

‘Oh, you all say it won’t hurt me, but it’s not good, is it? You wouldn’t want your girls doing it, would you, Bessie?’

‘Whip an’ Judy?’ Bessie’s face creased into a wide grin. ‘They never tell me nothing, but I think they both try it already. I don’t mind that much, but I tell them if they want marry a man, take up with one man for good, to be careful an’ let me know. I tried it twice an’ it no good. First time I was young an’ silly. I have Whip an’ carrying Judy an’ he wants to go walkabout. I say no, how can I go? So he gives me a belting. I still won’t go so he’s going to belt me some more an’ then the boss, this Mr. Foster’s father, he chase him. Then longtime after, about ten year ago, a man comes here, a nice sort of man, an’ I take up with him. But he starts to go for the plonk an’ the metho, whenever he gets a chance. It killed him in the finish—’

‘Oh,’ Mary interrupted, ‘but didn’t you tell me a horse killed him?’

‘The horse an’ the metho together,’ Bessie explained. ‘You see there was a horse here nobody can ride. He was six year old when they rounded him up an’ tried to break him in. They called him Bombo, ’cos if you get on him he throw you. You never been on the bombo, Mary? You ask Anna, she been on it.’

‘I’ll say,’ said Anna emphatically. ‘Bombo is plonk, you know, Mary. I been on it, an’ it throw me every time.’

‘So did this Bombo,’ continued Bessie. ‘He threw everybody, me too.’

‘Oh, Bessie,’ said Mary, ‘surely you don’t ride buckjumpers?’

‘I don’t now, but when I was young I was pretty good, wasn’t I, Anna?’

‘Yes,’ said Anna. ‘They tell me there never any man but one round this part of the world could beat Bessie on a rough ’un.’

‘An’ that one was this bloke I telling you about. Paddy was his name. One time the boss offered ten pound for any man that could beat me, but nobody ever got the ten quid. Anyway, I have the kids an’ give the game away, mostly. But when this Bombo’s got everybody beat I get cheeky—I’ll have a go. He never threw me—I jump off, an’ damn’ glad I was to get off in one piece. He’s fast as a cat, but strong—God, he crack you like a whip. I only stayed ’bout three bucks an’ it felt like I’s being torn apart.’

Bessie felt her stomach. ‘I still not sure everything in its right place. But when this Paddy come here he say he can ride, so they put him on Bombo. He was right—he can ride. He rode Bombo to a standstill. That’s why I go for Paddy, I s’pose. An’ the boss sooled me on. He says, “Oh, Bessie, you have a kid by this Paddy an’ we have the best horseman in the world.”

‘Anyway, like I say, this Paddy starts to go for the plonk or the metho or anything he can get. So one day, one Sunday afternoon, I hears a hullabooloo—I was in the huts down the paddock then —an’ I go out to see if Paddy’s mixed up in it ’cos he’s been missing all day. Now what’s happened, only I don’t know, is a couple of the white men has had a bet whether Paddy can ride Bombo drunk. So they’ve been pouring metho into him all morning; an’ now they’ve got Bombo saddled, an’ to make sure of a good show they’ve put a big burr under the saddle.

‘When I come out I see ’em all clustered round Bombo, who’s standing quiet enough ’cos he’s got a bag over his eyes. Then I see ’em hoisting Paddy up an’ I start to run. I yell out “Not in the paddock, Paddy, take him in the stockyard,” ’cos even Paddy’s never ridden Bombo in the open paddock, he’s not even properly mouthed. Then I see Paddy’s so drunk there’s a bloke holding him in the saddle an’ I yell louder. But a white man grabs me an’ says: “Leave him alone, you black bitch. I got a quid on this.”

‘Paddy heard me though, an’ he straightened himself up. “Sheesh ri, lerrergo.” And the blokes pulled the bag off Bombo’s eyes an’ let him go. An’ did he go! The first jump Paddy’s head flopped back, an’ when Bombo hit the ground his head snapped forward so you expected to see it fly off. That jar must’ve nearly broke his neck, but it wakened him up. Bombo nearly turned himself inside out. He’d never bucked like this before. But o’ course, he’d never had a burr under the saddle before. But Paddy hung to him.’

Bessie’s face gleamed and her eyes sparkled. ‘Paddy stayed with him. You couldn’t say he rode him flash, but he hung to him. An’ he had him beat.’

Bessie shrilled triumphantly: ‘Bombo’s head came up. He’d had it.’

Her voice dropped. ‘But then he reared. By then he was too far away to see just what happened. Whether it was the burr, or Paddy gouged him with the hooks—anyway, he reared, half-spun round, an’ crashed on his back. That’s where the metho came in. If Paddy had ’a’ been sober he’d left him an’ jumped clear. But he was so drunk he could only hang on. When I got there he’s stretched across a log an’ nearly in two pieces. That was the end of my second husban’ !’

‘Oh, that was terrible,’ Mary cried. ‘But why didn’t the boss stop it?’

‘Oh, the boss was away. An’ did he go mad when he got back the next day. He’s not only lost his horsebreaker, but he didn’t have a new one to come out of me. He start to go crook on me. He say, “You too slow, Bessie, we not get the champion.” ’ Bessie shook her head. ‘You see, he’s not wake up to what he’s lost. But I tell him. I say to him, “It no difference if I have one here”—an’ I pat my belly—“or if you breed for hundred years. You not get the champeen. You lost the champeen yesterday.” ’ Bessie’s eyes had a faraway look as she finished softly, ‘That boy, he could ride.’

Then she grinned. ‘They tried out the girls later, but they done no good. Whip can ride a bit, but she’s too light, not strong enough.

‘An’ Judy ride like a bag o’ spuds. ’Course, I think she’s too cunning to try. Now I think we talked enough, Anna’s nearly asleep an’ everything’s quiet, so I s’pose the kids are down at the stockmen’s huts.’

‘There’s a thing has me puzzled, Bessie,’ Mary butted in. ‘You and Anna told me none of us was allowed away from the house, we couldn’t mix with any of the other people on the station. Yet the girls slip away pretty often.’

Bessie grinned a shrewd grin. ‘But we’re different, Mary,’ she said. ‘You see,’ she went on, ‘this Mr. Foster an’ me we grew up together. I teach him to ride. . . .’ Thinking she read a question in Mary’s eyes, she added: ‘No, on’y horses, he never ride me. You see, for one thing I’se too old, ’bout as old as him. Still, we’re good friends. An’ he’s known the kids all their lives—for that matter he might not be too sure they’re not related. They can do a lot of things he wouldn’t let nobody else do. Both the missus an’ Mr. Foster don’t want you girls mixing with the rest o’ the hands on the station.’ She leered at Mary. ‘The same whyfor, but different becoses. But where she’s on us, too, he’s a bit easy—see?’

Bessie reached over and touched Anna on the shoulder. ‘You wake up for a cup o’ tea, Anna?’

‘Oh, yes.’ Anna blinked and stretched and then heaved herself up. ‘I love a cup of tea when they’re away and you can take your time and make toast.’

‘How is it,’ asked Mary as they walked along to the kitchen, ‘that Mrs. Lowe allows all this noise and the sup of tea and so on?’

‘It’s just on these one nights,’ replied Anna. ‘If the missus away for long, Mrs. Lowe try to keep everything just’s if she here. But for one night like this I think she just go to her room an’ sleep like dead.’

‘She dream of her white man,’ chuckled Bessie. ‘Like he was ’fore he drank himself to death when he found what he’d married, I ’specs.’

When they opened up the door of the stove they found lovely big coals, for Bessie, like a good campaigner, had put on a couple of big lumps of wood after tea. Bessie carefully poked some kindling wood over the top of the coals to boil the kettle without disturbing them. As the kettle was just on the boil it didn’t take long to start singing. While Bessie made the tea, Anna was toasting the bread, and Mary getting out the cups and milk and sugar.

‘Ah, this good,’ said Anna, luxuriously sipping the tea and munching a huge slice of toast. ‘It good as being white people. As if we own the place.’

‘Just for tonight,’ added Mary. ‘I suppose we enjoy it better than the whites. You’ve been here so long, Bessie, you must feel as if you should own it at times. How long have you been here?’

‘All my life I been here,’ replied Bessie. ‘I born on this station.’

‘You should know your way about then. Have these people owned it all the time?’

‘The old man, Mr. Foster’s father, he was boss right up to. . . How long you been here, Anna?’

‘Two’n’ a half years.’

‘Then he been dead ’bout four years, an’ the missus has been here about five. He was hard man, the old boss, but not bad to work for. He’s the one gave me this name. Black Bess, he used to call me. Many a night we played together. He used to say: “You’re not bad, Black Bess. I could ride to York on you any time.” I don’t know what he meant, but that’s what he used to say.

‘His wife, this David’s mother, she’s dead long time. Things used to be fairly easy in the house here, but it altered quick when the old man died an’ this Mrs. Foster took over. For one thing she got rid of the old housekeeper and brought in this Jap. Then she must have the house altered an’ everything she did seemed to make more work. Them floors, f’rinstance, they used to be plain wood. ’Course, they had to be washed reg’lar, but that’s nothing. She must have all the floors stained an’ polished an’ you know what work they are now. Then she has glass louvers put in all along the front verandah. God, about half a mile of glass louvers to clean, I don’t know how you girls put up with it.

‘Pity this bloke wasn’t a bit more like his father, but he too weak. No, don’t touch the cups an’ things, Anna. No work tonight, plenty time tomorrow. They prob’ly won’t be back till late tomorrow, we hope.’

‘Good night, Bessie, thanks for the supper.’

‘S’nothing, call again some time, g’night.’

Then came the day. During breakfast Anna announced, ‘She’s off today, the boss going run her into town s’afternoon.’

‘The missus? chorused Whip and Judy. ‘Hooray, that the stuff. How long she go for?’

‘Dunno,’ said Anna as she set off out again with the white folks’ breakfast.

‘Nobody said, mebbe nobody knows.’

Bessie noticed Mary’s worried look. ‘You needn’t worry yet, Mary. He not be back tonight.’

The atmosphere was sultry that night in the girls’ cubicle. Mary was nervous and tense and Anna was back in her black mood again. Mary was glad when Bessie dropped in.

‘Hey, you two.’ She wasted no time on finesse. ‘What’s wrong? You both look s’if you got indigeshun. An’ all you worry about’s one man, one gets him t’other wants him. Anna, you silly, you know he soon want you again.’

Anna just tossed her head and held her tragic pose.

Bessie went on with a chuckle, ‘Nice fresh young girl like Mary, she soon get fixed up with piccaninny.’

Mary’s face took on a look of horror. ‘Oh, no, not that!’

Anna couldn’t keep her face straight now. She chuckled. ‘Why, Mary, you think the end of the world come?’

Mary couldn’t speak. She hid her face in her hands and her shoulders shook with sobs.

The other two, at once contrite, hovered about her. Bessie put her arm round Mary. ‘We only joking, Mary, don’t take notice of us.’

As the sobs subsided Bessie said, ‘Come on, look up, child, and I talk to you serious.’

Mary straightened up, wiping the backs of her hands across her tear-dimmed eyes.

‘Now lissen to me,’ Bessie went on. ‘You know that likely to happen to any girl any time. But if it happen here it might be just what you want. You know what they do if any girl in the house get in fam’ly way?’

Mary shook her head.

‘Soon as the missus get on to it she send them right off to Darwin, so they be right away from here, where nobody know or care where they come from. They tell me even coloured girls well looked after in Darwin, they have hospital an’ everything. An’ when it finished, you in Darwin where you want to be to find your white husban’. How’s that, eh?’

Some of the gloom had gone from Mary’s face. ‘Yes, but I’d have the child.’

‘What that? That nothing. You can give it to mission. When you not married they prob’ly give it to mission anyhow. I dunno. Anyway, it not stop you get married. It only easy way I know to get to Darwin. What you think, Anna?’

‘Yes, if you want to get to Darwin, it good way all right. An’ the boss pretty good bull.’

‘I’ll say,’ grinned Bessie. ‘He fix everybody. How many go away since you been here?’

‘Two go away. An’ then there’s me.’

Morbid curiosity was too much for Mary. ‘What happened to you, Anna, you didn’t go?’

‘No,’ answered Anna. ‘I didn’t go ’cos I wanted to stay, but I get in family way, all right. It just happen to be last year when the missus away long time. I desperate so I let Bessie here fix me.’

‘An’ I good doctor, eh?’ said Bessie with a huge grin.

‘You good butcher. God, what a butcher! Whatever you do, Mary, never let Bessie near you. I nearly die. If I want to stop here ten times as much as I do, I wouldn’t be game to let her have another go at me. Only good thing might be I think she make such a mess that I never be able to have a kid.’

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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