No Sunlight Singing

Book Two, Chapter 8

Anna and Mary, having had their tea and toast, were just getting ready for bed when Mrs. Lowe’s shrill voice startled them.

‘Anna and Mary, Mr. Foster wants you at once, in the library.’

Anna spat viciously. ‘Anna and Mary,’ she snapped. ‘That means he have you and I have to go with other man.’ Her eyes blazed and she muttered foul things.

Mary wailed, ‘Oh, Anna, what will I do?’

Anna glared. ‘What the use arguin’? Do like I do. There’ll be grog there. Get stuck into it and get half-drunk. Then you don’t care what happen.’

She flounced out of the door and along the verandah, Mary forlornly tagging along behind.

‘Ah, ah, there you are, girls,’ said Dave brightly. ‘Will you go over and talk to Mr. Lott, Anna? Mary, come and sit here.’ He patted the broad arm of his chair. ‘Come on, child, I won’t hurt you,’ as Mary hesitated. She perched gingerly on the arm of the chair.

‘Here you are. Drink this,’ said Dave coaxingly, holding out a tumblerful of cocktail. Mary took it miserably and dutifully tried a sip. She was surprised to find that it tasted quite nice, sweet and fruity. Keeping her eye on Anna she saw her gulp down her glassful and hold out the glass for more.

Mary tipped her glass up and took a big swallow. She gasped but could feel a pleasant glow as the liquid ran down her throat. ‘Come on, child, drink it up,’ came the persuasive voice of Dave. ‘It’ll do you good.’

Mary took a deep breath and finished the glass, which Dave promptly seized and filled up.

‘Now, take it easy, Mary; you’ll soon be all right.’

The glow spread all over her now; her body felt light as air. This is good, she thought, and drank thirstily. Looking over to see how Anna was getting on, Mary was startled to see only two bare legs waving over the arm of the chair. The rest of Anna was hidden by the big shoulders of Bob as he bent over her and kissed her fiercely. A minute or so later, Anna twisted and kicked and struggled to her feet. She wriggled her hips to shake her dress down and flung her hair back off her face.

‘Phew,’ she gasped, ‘you too fast for me. I need a drink to catch up.’

She poured herself a glassful of cocktail and turned towards Dave.

‘This bottle finish. We die of thirst, me an’ Mary.’

Dave leaned forward and peered round Mary. ‘That didn’t last you long. Look in the cabinet, there is more there. But take it steady. If you keep up this pace you’ll soon be flat on your back.’ Anna giggled as she went to the cabinet. She turned and stubbed her thumb towards Bob. ‘That where he want me—flat on my back!’

‘Yes,’ retorted Bob, ‘but not too flat. I want you down, but not out.’

‘How you go, Mary?’ Anna asked, as she slit the cap off the new bottle. ‘You still look sad. Come on, drink that up an’ have another.’

Mary emptied the glass and stood up to give it to Anna. She felt the glow through her head now, and wavered a little as she stood up.

‘Whoa,’ said Anna, grinning an ear-splitting grin. ‘You doing all right. How you feel?’

‘I feel wonderful,’ said Mary, waving her arms. ‘Just like a bird.’

‘Well, little birdie, have a little drink an’ perch on that chair again before you start fly.’

Mary sat down again, but now she relaxed and leaned against the back of the chair, one leg propping her up, the other stretched out along the chair-arm.

Gentle fingers sent a thrill through her as they ran lightly up her arm. She turned and looked at Dave. He has a nice kind face, she thought, I was silly to worry.

Bob stood up and squeezed Anna to him. Then he turned to propel her towards the door. Anna twisted away from him and grabbed for the bottle. With this cradled in her arm she snuggled up to him and they walked slowly out of the room.

Mary curled up convulsively as soft fingers ran electrically along her outstretched leg. Gentle hands drew her forward to slide into the chair. She squirmed and tensed as urgent hands slid under her dress. Her breasts ached as they were pressed fiercely against Dave’s chest. Her eyes closed, and her breath came short.

The progress of the scrubbing next morning was spasmodic. Mrs. Lowe hovered close. Both her actions and expressions left no one in any doubt that she was on the warpath. She walked, or half-trotted, with her own peculiar scurrying motion, backwards and forwards, in and out of the neighbouring rooms. The girls’ strokes were in harmony with her movements, slowing down as she walked away, and speeding up as she turned back again.

Mary had difficulty in concentrating as her thoughts kept wandering, trying to sort out her impressions of the night before. She felt amazingly happy, but vaguely guilty and puzzled. Guilty because she was happy, and had a distinct but hazy impression that she had enjoyed herself at the party; puzzled because she felt so well, and had an idea that after a night of what she supposed was debauch, she should be worn out and washed up—should indeed feel as Anna looked.

Mary had no clear recollection of going to her own bed, but she had been there for some time before getting up. Anna, however, had fumbled her way in just before Bessie had come to call them. Having had a more hectic night, in more ways than one, and being more temperamental by nature, Anna showed some effects. As she bent over her work she had shaken a fringe of hair down over her forehead, so that she could watch Mrs. Lowe without seeming to do so. In the shadowy light thus thrown on her face, her normal bronze complexion had a slight tinge of green, and her smoky eyes were bloodshot.

In answer to Mary’s bright smile and brisk ‘Good morning,’ as Anna had struggled out of bed, she had grunted, and scowled ferociously. But this morning Anna’s scowl had bounced off Mary’s good humour without even denting it. Relief at being released from the tensions and fears of the past days and months, and at finding the appointed road not so unpleasant after all, had made her spirits soar irrepressibly.

Seizing the opportunity when Mrs. Lowe was in the dining-room, and, from the noises she made, up at the far end, Anna whispered: ‘The Jap allus mad as hell mornings like this. Watch yourself an’ only say, “Yes, ma’am, no, ma’am”, then she got nothing on us.’

The noises in the dining-room died out, and Anna rushed to finish. ‘I got to get somethin’ when she goes out. If she start come back, you drop brush.’

At last Mrs. Lowe did go out, and her footsteps passed out of hearing. Anna sprinted across and into the library. She was hardly in there before Mary heard Mrs. Lowe’s footsteps. Mary dropped her scrubbing-brush, and frightened herself with the sudden clatter. Anna flew in, and slid backwards on her knees the last couple of yards, coming to rest in a scrubbing position, and with her body covering the bucket, as she smoothly slid a bottle into the soapy water.

This masterly exhibition had Mary so goggle-eyed with amazement that she had not picked up her brush and started work before Mrs. Lowe burst in.

‘You stupid girl,’ that lady scowled, ‘do you want to wake everybody in the house! Get on with your work, and don’t make so much noise.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ murmured Mary meekly. ‘Sorry, ma’am.’

Anna scowled up through the fringe of hair for a few minutes, and then decided on a bold stroke. Grabbing the bucket, she hurried out in the direction of the kitchen, calling out as she went, ‘I see if Bessie got that hot water yet.’

Mrs. Lowe was so taken by surprise her mouth was still open, trying to form a shrill recall, after Anna had disappeared from sight. She glowered but said nothing when Anna returned and started to wield her brush vigorously.

A little later Mary was astounded to hear Anna humming a tune as she worked. Evidently she had found a potent medicine.

The two girls, Whip and Judy, rolled through the kitchen door, rocking with laughter. Each had an arm about the other, and the second hand firmly planted across her sister’s mouth. So they rock-’n’-rolled along the verandah—an uneven progress full of jerkings and writhings, punctuated by coughing, grunting, and spitting, and an occasional long-drawn sob for breath.

On her way to the kitchen for breakfast, Mary stopped to watch this performance. Coming up to her the girls were starting to gain some control; but suddenly they looked up and saw her. As if at a signal, the girls threw up their hands and drew long, almost shrieking breaths of air; then turned, leapt headlong from the verandah, and skeltered madly towards the outhouses, strange bubbling noises coming from them as they ran.

A little frown appeared between Mary’s brows, and spread rapidly across her face as she hurried to the kitchen. Coming to the doorway, she heard a sudden scurrying noise, an urgent, breathless kind of noise that stopped as suddenly as it began, leaving in its place an urgent, unbreathing kind of silence. When she opened the fly-wire door Bessie was facing her, diligently studying some slices of toast. Bessie was strategically placed so as almost to obscure Anna, whose back, as she bent over the wood-box, was as eloquent of diligence as Bessie’s face.

Bessie sneaked an oblique glance at the newcomer, and the look of earnest endeavour faded from her face like a misty breath from a warm mirror. ‘O-oh,’ she said, ‘it only Mary. You hurry like that,’ she continued, ‘an’ we think it the Jap.’

She sat down on a stool by the stove and went on with the toast-making. On a plate were several slices of bread that had been crisping on top of the stove. Now she was giving them a turn in front of the bare coals, to colour them up and make them look like toast.

Anna straightened up, put a hand on her midriff and gave an exaggerated gasp. ‘Don’ do that, Mary. I die of heart failure.’ She bent over the wood-box, and came up holding a wine bottle aloft in triumph. She plonked the bottle down and perched herself on a corner of the table, skirt pulled up her thigh, and leg swinging.

‘Have a shot o’ this, Mary,’ said Anna, waving her hand in the grand manner. ‘Do you good. Me’n Bessie, we been done good.’

Mary’s frown was still in evidence. ‘Never mind about that,’ she snapped. ‘What have you been telling the girls about me? They nearly choked when they saw me just now.’

Bessie swung round and looked searchingly at Mary, astonished to hear that shy girl speaking in such a forceful tone of voice. Then she hurried to reply before Anna had a chance. ‘Now, now, Mary, don’ get mad for nothing. Anna tell the kids about herself till they nearly in ’sterics. We have to send them away, or they laugh and bring the Jap. All she say about you was about the dickie bird. That finish them off.’

Bessie’s face split in a terrific grin. ‘You wanna hear about Anna an’ the big boy? Tell her, Anna. Tell her how tired he is.’

Anna raised her hands. ‘This big boy,’ she told Mary earnestly, ‘he go all night. He’s randy as a scrub-bull. But here.’ She held the bottle up to the light, showing it to be about a quarter full, and then pushed it towards Mary. ‘Here, get some o’ this into you. This spark you up.’

Mary protested that she didn’t need a drink, didn’t even want one just then. But as she spoke she was looking round. ‘What you look for?’ demanded Anna. ‘You wanna glass? Pooh!’ She waved her hand. ‘Glasses. F’we have glasses an’ things about, how you think we hide them if the Jap come? Here, take a swig out the bottle. Be a man.’

Still protesting weakly, Mary lifted the bottle and took a drink. Her eyes popped and she coughed and spluttered, but that didn’t stop her from taking a good big swallow.

Anna’s eyes popped, too. ‘Well, I must say you pretty good for a learner, ’specially seein’ you don’ wanna learn, an’ don’ like the stuff.’

‘Sh,’ said Bessie. ‘Shut up, you two. Here, sit down, Mary, an’ have your brekfuss.’

Mary sat down to a plateful of juicy steak and leathery toast. As she munched, she mumbled: ‘How d’you manage to get on to the wine? Surely Mr. Foster didn’t give it to you, did he?’

Toasting finished, Bessie was bustling about, collecting breakfast dishes. ‘Oh, well, sometimes I get some—here or there’—vaguely. ‘You know I been about here a long time. I know a few tricks. But sometimes like this, when Mr. Foster has a party we plant a bottle for the morning. Mebbe he knows, but don’t say anything. Any other time, though, he be on us like a ton of rocks. An’ he back up the Jap if she catch us. We gotta be careful.’

She turned and looked Anna up and down. ‘You straighten your skirt an’ comb your hair. You look as if your big boy been rollin’ you. Mebbe you better let Mary take the brekfuss in.’

Anna stiffened and flared up at this, but she had sense enough to touch herself up as advised. Within minutes she was reaching for the tray, with hardly a sign to show she was at all different from normal.

Bessie, shrewd judge, appraised her. ‘O.K.—not too bad. Remember, keep your eyes half-shut an’ your mouth proper shut—an’ don’ breathe on anybody. Then nobody’ll know you’re any sillier than usual.’

Without thinking much about it, Mary had expected some kind of change in relations between herself and Mr. Foster. But, at least in the daytime, there was no alteration at all. In the evenings, however, she was called on to play companion to the master, and listen to the wireless, or play the gramophone for him, in addition to more serious pastimes.

Soon, to her great relief, Anna was called back into the game. Until then her moods made life almost unbearable. Now she bloomed again, and took over most of the love-making.

Mary now had more time to listen to the radio and read magazines and papers. She entertained Mr. Foster in a different way—by her naive comments on stories, plays, and events as she read and heard of them. He never tired of leading her on, but, besides poking fun at her, he would often explain things to her.

His explanations could hardly be classed as examples of painstaking accuracy, but they helped Mary to conceive ideas, even if some of the ideas were a little bit distorted.

So Mary’s education progressed rapidly, especially in the development of a worldly outlook. She learned to think for herself, not taking for granted too much of what people said.

The biggest steps she made were in the art of playing on other people’s moods to suit herself. Anna’s tempestuous nature and quick-changing humours forced her to be crafty, and she quickly learned ways of teasing or soothing Anna as the occasion demanded. She found, too, that Mr. Foster’s amiable disposition made him open to influence in little matters, though he had a stubborn enough streak when it came to a question of bolstering up his own selfishness or laziness.

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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