No Sunlight Singing

Book Three, Chapter 1

‘JEEZ, look at that creamy over there.’ Bud Baker put down his saw, and brushed his fingers across his eyebrows to throw off the sweat trickling into his eyes, as he walked over to the side of the half-finished house to get a better view. A nuggety man in his late twenties, the back of his khaki overalls showed a dark wet patch, surrounded by the salt tide-marks left by other days of toil in Darwin’s steamy wet season. Eyes a shade too prominent, and mouth a bit slack, marred even features now mottled by the sun, border-line areas of peeling skin separating patches of brown from patches of red.

The house they were working on, a framework with a roof, stood in a clearing in the spear grass that was already level with the three-foot fence separating them from the next-door garden, and before the wet was over would be up eight or ten feet. In this élite suburb of Myilly Point most of the householders kept the grass under control, native labour being cheap, but even here it covered every vacant space.

Leaning on the corner of the building, Bud peered intently over the grass into the backyard of the house next door.

‘Hey, Les,’ he called to his mate, who was still busy sawing up boards. ‘Come here an’ have a gander at this an’ tell me if it’s jonnick, or if I’m seeing things.’

‘Seeing things,’ said Les, as he walked over to join Bud, ‘you’re allus seeing things. What are you on to now!’

He gave a low whistle. ‘I’ll say you’re seeing things. So’m I. Choice—extra choice. Wonder where she sprang from? A man’d crawl over broken bottles to get at her.’

The object of all this praise continued undisturbed with her job of hanging out the washing. It was Mary, more mature now and more beautiful. Her skin, after months of little sun, was not much darker than a white brunette’s. Black, glossy hair hung in natural waves down to her shoulder-blades. A thin cotton dress, made for someone smaller, stretched tightly across opulent curves as she alternately bent to the basket and reached up to the line.

‘I’m going over to have a word with her,’ said Bud, slipping the strap of his nail-bag over his head.

‘You wanna watch yourself, mate,’ cautioned Les. ‘Remember, you’re in Darwin now, not W.A. It’s dynamite if you’re caught playing with abos in this town.’

‘But she’s not an abo. There’s dozens of half-caste pieces in town not as white as her.’

‘Colour’s nothing to go by. They can be any colour but they’re still abos if they’re under the Department. None o’ these dames has anything but abos doing housework. They won’t pay wages to get anybody else. Anyway, they can’t shoot you for talking to her as long as it’s daylight. But, like I said, just watch your step.’

Mary straightened up from the clothes-basket and turned round, a man’s shirt hanging over her arm, as a low whistle came from near the garden fence. ‘Hey, Mary, what name belongs you?’

She smiled a dazzling smile. ‘How clever of you to guess. My name is Mary. What’s yours?’

Bud’s mottled face turned deep red all over. ‘Jeez,’ he muttered, ‘She speaks English. It’s my mate’s fault,’ he blurted out. ‘He reckoned you was an abo.’

Mary smiled sweetly. ‘Your mate is a good judge,’ she said. ‘I am an aboriginal.’

Bud gasped, then leaning further forward over the fence he said earnestly: ‘Look, I only wanted to be friends. I know I put my foot in it. Say, what you doin’ tonight?’

‘Tonight,’ said Mary, turning to hang the shirt on the line, ‘tonight I shall be safely shut up in the compound.’

‘W-what?’ stuttered Bud. ‘You mean you—you really are an abo?’

Mary turned to face him again. ‘Of course,’ she replied. ‘I told you before.’

‘But the way you look, the way you talk—’

‘I’m afraid that has nothing to do with it,’ said Mary, fastening the last shirt out. ‘I’m still an abo, as you put it. Now I’m afraid I must leave you. Your boss mightn’t mind you wasting time, but I don’t think mine is so easy. I only started work this morning, so I must be careful.’

With that she picked up the basket and hurried back to the house. Bud watched her, fascinated, till she passed from sight. Then he went back to his job.

‘Gor,’ he told his mate, ‘she looks like a film star, an’ talks better’n me or you, but she’s an abo all right. Or so she says, anyway.’

‘Yeah,’ grunted Les. ‘Well, what did I tell yer?

‘Now look,’ he said, straightening up and laying down his saw, ‘you grab an armful of these floorboards an’ spread ‘em out inside. We’ll get stuck into ’em together to get a stretch nailed down before the boss arrives. He must be due any time now, an’ we want to make a bit of a show.’

The two worked busily for a time, laying floorboards, levering them tight, and nailing them down. Then, as they paused for a breather, Bud returned to his favourite subject.

‘Say, Les, what’s the drill with these halfies? Back in the West you never see that many, but if you can lumber ’em off it’s O.K. Here some seem to be O.K. an’ some’s not. That dance I went to th’other night. There was all colours there—black, white, brown, and brindle. I never lumbered none, I never tried, but I see blokes whizzin ’em off, an’ it didn’t seem to make no difference what colour they was. Yet you say lay off ’em.’

‘Yeah, well, it’s like I said. Some’s classed as abos an’ some’s not. Now there’s lots of all breeds, like you seen at the dance, that lives like whites an’ gets paid the same. They join the union an’ get award wages. There’s still some differences in these. F’rinstance some can drink in a pub an’ some can’t. Far as I can make out they have to be declared O.K. by Native Affairs. But what makes the difference, God only knows. They might have to sling to some head.’

Les paused to get his pipe drawing. ‘Trouble with this weed in the damp it gets so damn’ wet you can’t get it to draw.’

Then he went on: ‘But any o’ these can do pretty well what they like. An’ as far as the sheilas goes, you can throw a leg over ’em if they’ll let you. But with the abos it’s a bird of a different feather. If you get caught throwin’ a leg over one o’ them they’ll hit you with the book. Six moons in Fanny Bay first up. An’ they only need to find you with one after dark, you don’t need to be doin’ anything to get a sixer—’

‘But I still can’t understand,’ Bud interrupted. ‘I hear all these old hands talking about gin rorting, as if it’s the national sport in the Territory.’

‘So it is,’ said Les between puffs. He was working his face like a bellows, trying to get forced draught on his damp tobacco. ‘But that’s outside the town area. You can’t touch ’em in the town. ’Course, there’s plenty of it goes on, but you need to be careful. That’s what I said to you. You need to know what you’re doing.’

Bud stood up and stretched, ready to start work again. ‘How do you tell which is abos then?’

Les knocked his pipe out. ‘Well, the girls is mostly on housework, like this one.’ He nodded over to the house next door. ‘As a rule they don’t wear shoes, that’s a fairly good sign, but not certain. Mostly they live in the compound, only come in in the daytime to work. But that’s not certain, because a boss can get a permit from the Department to have a servant sleep in the house. It’s like picking under-age girls, there mightn’t be much difference in ’em, but you’re wrong if you don’t see it.’

Mary’s becoming pregnant and being sent to Darwin had all happened much as Bessie and Anna had predicted, so that it had seemed to everyone to be just normal routine. Even Mrs. Foster had accepted the situation calmly, and without bothering to pretend indignation.

In the face of this phlegmatic public opinion, Mary had found difficulty in fostering her own feelings of crisis and drama. But the excitement of the trip to Darwin buoyed her up, and largely counteracted the slump in her emotions.

However, the atmosphere of the aboriginal compound near Darwin had soon stifled any pleasurable excitement and left her a prey to her previously suppressed fears and worries, besides providing her with some new ones.

Her first weeks there had been something of a nightmare, one that was still capable of bringing a shudder to her if she paused to think of it. The collection of old army huts scattered through the scrub—with the ground inches thick in dust most of the time, and ankle deep in water and mud whenever the torrential rains of the wet poured down—was uninviting enough. For Mary, young and shy, and painfully conscious of her swelling waistline, it was a tremendous ordeal to face a huge, strange community. Mr. Robinson, the Superintendent of the compound, had done nothing to reassure her. A stern man, he disapproved, and took some pains to show his disapproval, of coloured girls in Mary’s condition. Brusquely he had indicated a spot she could make her home, and promptly left her to it.

Used to hard beds, Mary had been little dismayed to find that here were no beds, but only a blanket or sack on the concrete floor. What had shaken her was the discovery that the little heaps of bedding on either side of her were the homes of families, and that family life with all its intimacies was here conducted in public.

Then had come her first job in town. Desperate for some relief from the life in the compound, despite her condition, she had pleaded for a job. Somewhat grudgingly, Mr. Robinson had found one for her, a temporary job with a woman who was going to have a baby herself.

The first morning the job was a pleasure; Mary was glad to be occupied, and away from the dreary camp, and the woman was pleasant. When she found that Mary was well brought up and well educated she treated her almost as an equal, and soon they were exchanging confidences about pregnancies.

The first mealtime, however, had brought an episode that was far from pleasant. At dinner-time the husband had come home from work, and for a time Mary could hear the sounds of crockery and cutlery clinking. Then came the woman’s voice, ‘Mary, bring Jacky’s plate here for his dinner.’

Jacky, the coloured boy who did the work about the garden, chopped wood, and ran messages, was hovering close to the verandah. Mary hurried over and took the tin dish and pannikin he held out to her. As she carried them to the kitchen she noticed they were dirty, obviously only having been rinsed under the tap.

The woman handed the dish to her husband. He scraped the scraps off the plates into it, added a couple of ragged ends of meat, and garnished it with a spoonful of blancmange. The wife slapped a lump of bread and jam on top. Then she rinsed the teapot out into the pannikin and dashed in some sugar and powdered milk. She smiled graciously as she handed the tins to Mary. ‘Here you are, will you give them to Jacky?’

Mary’s knees were weak as she walked across the verandah, and she felt as if she was suffocating—Jacky was one of her people; and he was fed like a dog—how horrible! God, was she to be offered a dishful of scraps?

She wavered on the edge of the verandah, ashamed to hand the food to Jacky. He soon solved the problem by jumping up the steps and grabbing the dishes, with a grin on his face.

As Mary turned back she heard an argument going on in the kitchen. ‘But that’s how they like it,’ the man’s voice was saying, all in together.’

‘But you can’t give her food like that. She’s been well brought up.’

‘Well, all right. I don’t care. Give her some bread and jam. That’s what they like, something sweet. But cut a good thick slice. That’s what they like.’

To Mary’s relief, however, the woman had ignored her husband’s advice, and had continued to treat her like a human being.

So the job had been a good one, and had lasted right up to the time of the birth of her baby.

The baby, a beautiful girl, had managed a punctual and business-like entrance into the world. Mary was lucky to have the assistance of Susie, a woman who had had a few children herself (and was soon to have another one) and who was a willing and capable midwife.

Having successfully negotiated this obstacle, Mary was soon confronted with a bigger one—how to get a job now she had the baby to look after, or how to get the essential things for the baby without the money a job would bring. The days dragged into weeks, and the weeks dragged seemingly endlessly into months, while Mary was driven nearly mad with frustration.

Then Susie came to the rescue. She was nursing her latest baby now, and had more milk than the baby could cope with, so she told Mary. So she offered to care for Polly, Mary’s baby, during the day, if Mary could find work.

Naturally Mary had jumped at the opportunity, and rushed to seek a job. This time she had not had long to wait, as Mr. Robinson now knew that he could recommend her as a good and capable worker, and he had on his list a householder who was especially influential, and especially hard to please.

It was a great relief to Mary to be away from the compound for a few hours a day, and a great load off her mind now that she would have a few shillings to buy things for Polly. She was disappointed that she was only to get ten shillings a week. Some of the girls talked of earning fifteen or twenty shillings, and Mary had built up hopes of a job like that, although she had realized that probably the girls were just talking big. Still, she was earning money.

The fact that the work was fairly hard, that Mrs. Allsop kept at her all day, did not worry Mary at all. The hours were short and the job seemed easy compared to the one at Malcolm Downs. One disappointment was that Mrs. Allsop did not give her some clothes. Lots of the other girls seemed to get plenty of dresses given to them. Dresses that were old and worn for whites, but still good for the girls. Mary was desperately in need of a dress. She only had one that was fit to go out in, and it was so tight that she was afraid it would burst every time she bent down. She could only keep on hoping that Mrs. Allsop would do something before the dress finally fell to pieces.

Every day Bud would have a few words with her, if it was only a yell, as she walked past on some errand. Mary enjoyed the feeling that she had some little connection with someone in the outside world, even if most of his sallies were a bit crude. Under the eagle eye of Mrs. Allsop, she rarely got a chance to say much to him.

One day, though, Mrs. Allsop had to go to town. The list of jobs she left behind defeated its own purpose; it was so long that Mary decided she couldn’t possibly do everything in time, so a moment here or there made no difference.

She was hanging out a few things on the line when Bud hailed. There was a long empty line stretching right up to the house, but of course there was a better breeze down this end of the yard. ‘Hi ya, gorgeous, what’s cookin’?’

Mary looked over her shoulder and showed a dazzling set of teeth in a broad smile. ‘I don’t know, I can smell something burning. It wouldn’t be you, would it?’

Bud squinted down at his shoulder and grinned ruefully. ‘All right, rub it in. I was silly enough to take notice o’ that mate o’ mine. He’s allus tellin me “Get into singlet an’ shorts.” So I did. So here I am, burnt to a frazzle.’

‘Don’t you have any sun where you come from?’

‘In the West! No sun! Lissen! The West has the best climate in Australia, but it’s not like this where you’re fryin’ or boilin’ all the time.’

‘Well, why did you come here if the West is so much better?’

‘More dough, gorgeous, more dough. I used to work for this bloke down in the West. He sent down for me. I’m doin’ all right. An’ if I’d ’a’ known what luscious things was about here I’d ’a’ came up long ago.’

Mary half-turned from the last towel she was pegging. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘What am I talkin’ about? Bud leered. ‘You, gorgeous, you. You know when you stretch up to that line with the sun behind you, you have me pawin’ at the ground. You know that dress is pretty thin.’

Mary blushed a bit and moved away from the line of the sun. ‘Haven’t you anything better to do than stare at me?’

‘Better, I’ll say I know something better.’ Bud leaned over the fence. ‘Come here till I get a grip on you. I’ll show you somethin’ better. Anyway, where’s old Horseface today? She’s keepin’ mighty quiet.’

‘Oh, she’s gone to town.’

‘Gone to town? W-e-ll, here’s where we go to town.’ Bud threw a leg over the fence.

‘Hold it. Don’t come over,’ Mary cried, getting ready to run. ‘If you come over the fence I’ll go, and that’s the last you’ll see of me.’

He settled back, half on the fence, half on the ground. ‘Jeez,’ he grumbled, ‘you’re hard. You’re stingier with it than—’ he stopped short.

She flared: ‘Go on, why don’t you say it? Than a white girl, you mean.’

Bud looked uncomfortable. ‘You keep harpin’ on it ’cos I made a mistake the first day. But how can I get any forrarder if I can’t get near you? I don’t care about you bein’ coloured.’

Mary was mollified. ‘Oh, well, we’ll let it go. But I still think you expect me to be easy because I’m coloured.’

‘Lissen,’ Bud protested, ‘I tell you it makes no difference to me what colour you are. You look gorgeous to me.’

Mary smiled and blew him a kiss from a safe distance. ‘You know I rather like you, but whatever I might want to do, I’m not free. And I can’t afford to run any risks. So,’ she picked up her basket, ‘I’d better go before the strain gets too much for you.’

Bud groaned, ‘Christ, you’re hard.’

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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