Book Two, Chapter 7
The sun was dipping through a haze towards the trees over beyond the stockyards, and as Anna and Mary sat on the back verandah steps the red glare lit up two faces deep in thought. Anna leaned back against the verandah post staring morosely into the distance. Mary, hunched up, with arms round her legs and chin resting on her knees, rocked steadily back and forth.
With Mr. Foster settling down to drink, and Mrs. Lowe hovering round him, they had no work to do, but each felt too restless to take advantage of this unusual holiday.
Came the sound of a motor, droning up and then stopping near the house. Bessie poked her head out of the kitchen. ‘Quick, Anna, see who that. Might be somebody for dinner.’
Anna jumped down the steps, ran to the corner of the house, and peered through the fence, Mary behind her trying to see over her head.
A utility truck was standing facing them up near the front corner of the house. As they got there, a big white man was turning away from the truck and walking towards the front of the house. As he disappeared from sight Anna turned and walked back to the kitchen, plucking at her lip and muttering to herself.
Suddenly inspiration came. ‘I got it, Bessie. You ’member long time ago man come, an’ Mr. Foster tell me gov’ment man look after coloured people? Well, that the man come now.’
‘Oh, well, that all right,’ said Bessie with relief. ‘Mr. Foster not likely worry much ’bout dinner for him. I frightened I have to start cooking. Now I can sit down again.’ And she promptly did that.
‘What do you mean, Anna?’ asked Mary eagerly. ‘How does this man look after coloured people?’
‘Well, I don’t know,’ said Anna slowly. ‘Mr. Foster just say to me, “That big man was here, Anna, you know, he’s the guardian of all coloured people.” I say, “What this guardeen bizness?” An’ he say: “His job is to go round the country and see that all coloured people and blacks are well looked after. He’s paid by the Government. You see how lucky you are, Anna,” says Mr. Foster. An’ that’s all I know.’
‘Well then,’ said Mary, her face lighting up, ‘I should be able to see him and tell him my troubles, and find out what I should do. What do you think, Bessie?’
‘I dunno,’ answered Bessie doubtfully. ‘He a white man, I dunno if he talk to you or not. I never see no gov’ment men looking after me. But you won’t be able to talk him tonight. Mebbe you can try tomorrow.’
Mary’s face fell, then brightened again. ‘Oh, that will be all right. I just thought. If this man’s a government man Mr. Foster won’t be wanting any of us tonight. Isn’t that right?’
The other two shook their heads uncertainly. ‘I dunno ’bout that,’ said Bessie.
But Anna started to brighten up. ‘You might be right, Mary. If you are, we can go to bed early. We won’t have to wait up.’
‘I think you two better get out,’ said Bessie. ‘Mrs. Lowe be here any minit to say what they want to eat.’
The library was now lightly veiled in a haze of tobacco smoke. The conversation of the two men had warmed up under the spur of alcohol.
‘Oh, Bob, you’re a beaut.’ Dave Foster rolled around and slapped the arm of his easy-chair as he roared with laughter. ‘I was praying for someone to come along today to keep me company. Thank God it was you.’
Bob lolled in an armchair on the other side of a little table, a big, youngish chap running to flesh, but of an athletic type so that he bulged everywhere, in the right places as well as the wrong ones. Now his face twisted in a grin. ‘Well, that’s not bad,’ he said. ‘You must be a pretty good prayer if you can pray God into finding me. I thought He’d deserted me years ago.’
Dave rang for Mrs. Lowe to bring in some more beer and a snack, and for a time the talk died down to a fitful murmur. But Dave stirred things up by saying: ‘This job of yours with Native Affairs would be a fair old bludge, wouldn’t it? You chaps can do just about what you like, can’t you?’
Bob’s face lost its usual grin. ‘Oh, yes, of course,’ he snapped. ‘It’s the fashion to talk like that about government jobs, especially a job like ours. What you mean is that we don’t do our jobs.’
‘Oh, no,’ Dave protested. ‘Don’t take offence when I didn’t mean any. Let’s drop the matter.’
‘I’m not taking any offence, but I’ll answer you just the same.’ Bob leaned forward in his chair and wagged his finger for emphasis. ‘Take this place of yours, for instance. We know that you give your natives a fair go, but I still check up on your books and report on what goes on, don’t I?’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ agreed Dave.
‘And, by that same token, I’ve always done the right thing by you, always given you a hand when I could to get a boy for you or anything else you wanted, haven’t I?’
‘Of course, of course. But you’re getting me wrong. I didn’t mean anything against you. In fact, I didn’t mean anything at all very seriously. But if you want a specific instance’—Dave hesitated a bit at ‘specific instance’ and then slid through it like a steeple-chaser crashing through the top of a brush fence—‘I’ll give you one. You chaps check up on me and other station owners who are doing the right thing, as you say, but what about the others who are not? Like this Stanton over here.’
He waved his arm vaguely in the direction where, sixty miles or so away, lay the homestead of his next-door neighbour.
Bob laughed. ‘That’s where the shoe pinches. You’re crooked on Stanton and want to see him hurt. That’s all right, I’m crooked on him too, but what can I do? Listen to this. When I first came on patrol I found what Stanton’s form was with the natives, and, I don’t mind admitting it, I was shocked. So I wrote in a blistering report—and a superior who was kind to inexperience lost the report and gave me a gentle hint that such things get nobody anywhere. I was advised of the crucial point, which is that the logical end of such an affair is the cancellation of the man’s licence to employ natives. Which means putting the man out of business, and that is not done. Also, of course, you are up against the fact that the word of blacks will not stand against a white’s. So now I do precisely the same with Stanton as I do with you. I visit the station and I make a report. But the hardest work I do is going there and having him sneer at me.’
‘Of course, you’re right.’ Dave nodded in agreement. ‘You can’t take the blacks away from a cattleman. Although, sometimes, I think I’d like to see him chased out. You should see what he does to me and his other neighbours. I reckon he brands more of other people’s stock than he does of his own.’
Bob butted in. ‘I heard a good one about him from the publican at Margaret. His story is that Stanton was telling a bloke he had branded 1998 calves. “But,” says the bloke, “I thought you said you only had 1000 cows?” “So I did,” says Stanton, “but I’ve culled them two out an’ fed ’em to the boongs.” “Which two?” asks the bloke. “The two that never had twins,” says Stanton.’
‘That’s him,’ cried Dave. ‘All the cheek in the world. But we can never fit him. It always boils down to the evidence of blacks. Still, it will be a bad day for the Territory when any amount of blacks will be believed against a white man. However, let us drink. Here,’ he said as he passed over a bottle, ‘pour yourself one, I’m getting worn out with work.’ After a pause he went on. ‘I’ve been wondering what’re your thoughts on the colour question—female—to do or not to do, as it were?’
Bob put on a thoughtful look. ‘Well,’ he said with deliberation, ‘I’m not exactly a gin-burglar, you know. I have to be persuaded. But then,’ and his face split in a wide grin, ‘if there’s anything any good about I’m awfully easy persuaded.’
Dave relaxed again. ‘I thought it would be all right, but you can never be sure.’
Bob shrugged. ‘Oh, well, it’s hard to be righteous about it when it’s the custom. Anyway, as far as anybody knows, the Government’s policy for aboriginals is still to breed out the colour. So, as a faithful servant, who am I to refuse duty and miss out on a chance of breeding out a bit of colour? You’ve heard what the police sergeant’s wife said to the constable’s wife?’
Dave shook his head.
‘It was when they heard that their husbands were coming back from a patrol in Arnhem Land. The sergeant’s wife said to the constable’s wife, “Oh, well, now I suppose you and me’ll have to take up the black gins’ burden.” ’
Dave nearly choked on cigarette smoke. Finally he managed to splutter, ‘Oh, what you do to me!’ When he had recovered he said: ‘What say we try a bit of persuasion, since you need persuading? I have a couple of housemaids who could liven up a bronze statue.’
‘That sounds good to me. From what I remember of your housemaids they are rather choice.’
‘I have one you won’t have seen. She’s brand new. I haven’t seen much of her myself yet, just waiting a chance. She’s something out of the box. Just like you read about in South Sea Island romances.’
Dave’s voice became earnest and impressive. ‘She has nearly perfect features, just a touch of colour, and from what you can see of it in a dress, a gorgeous chassis. I tell you I first saw her in a Mother Hubbard and she looked lovely in that. That takes doing.’
‘I’ll say it does. So you picked up your houri at a mission?’
‘Yes, at Kuralla. You should call in there some time. Then there’s Anna. You most likely saw her. She’s luscious—and lusty. She’s been my pet for two years, but I’ll lend her to you for the night. She might be a bit sulky at first—but she’ll be all right.’
‘Here,’ put in Bob hastily, ‘I don’t want to get involved in any family arguments. Peace at any price is my motto.’
‘Don’t panic.’ Dave airily waved away the other’s protests. ‘Anna will be good. She’s well trained. She’ll probably be extra good s’a matter of fact. She’ll have to go for you in a big way to show me she doesn’t care. But, oh, that other one! I’ve been dying to get at her.’
‘Tell me,’ asked Bob, ‘how do you get on with your new ones? Do you still hold strictly to your policy of no force?’
‘Oh, yes, I wouldn’t force them. But of course, they don’t know that. And I jolly them along a bit, you know. Nothing crude. But I usually prime them a bit first. You see this.’ He walked over to the cabinet and came back with a bottle. ‘This is the stuff—cheap cocktail—it works wonders. But you’ve no doubt tried it on girls down south. It’s nice and sweet, they lap it up like lolly water. And it works like dynamite; a drop of this and they’re all over you.’
‘Hold it,’ cried Bob, ‘hold it. You’re getting me all steamed up.’
‘O.K.,’ said Dave, pressing the bell, ‘let action be the word.’ Mrs. Lowe materialized again, face impassive but eyes sulky looking.
‘Oh, Mrs. Lowe, will you bring our friend another bottle of beer! And tell Anna and Mary to come here. Then you may retire, I shan’t be wanting you again.’
The novel No Sunlight Singing is Copyright © Joe Walker 1960.
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