No Sunlight Singing

Book Three, Chapter 2

There was a buzz of excitement in the camp, little knots of people dressed in their best, laughing and chattering, and others darting about getting ready to go. It was Wednesday night and the picture trucks were due any minute. There was an air of carnival on figures dimly lit by the last rosy glow from the west.

Polly was asleep and all the work finished, but Mary couldn’t rest. With two full weeks’ work behind her she had money in her pocket. The urge grew on her, she hadn’t been to the pictures for months.

As she heard the big trucks grinding on the gravel at the gate Mary could stand it no longer. Surely one shilling wouldn’t hurt anyone. She raced over to Susie. ‘Oh, could I leave Polly with you? I’d like to go to the pictures.’

‘Yes, child, ’course you can. She be right longs me. You have good time.’ Susie jumped to her feet and went to meet Mary as she ran back with the baby. ‘Off you go quick ’fore the truck go. I fix baby.’

As Mary sprinted across the flat one truck was going out of the gate and the other one just starting to move. Her heart sank, but the boys and girls on the truck saw her. Such a chorus of yells and shrieks went up, the driver stopped dead. He didn’t know whether he’d run over somebody, or what had happened. Half a dozen hands reached down and Mary nearly flew over the high sides of the truck.

They were so tightly packed there was hardly standing room, but who cared. This was picture night—the great event of the week. So they laughed and squealed and waved and cooeed to any passers-by. For Mary it was the event of months, and any faint remnant of worry about robbing Polly of a shilling was drowned in a rising tide of excitement.

They roared along through the humid night. Past the railway loco sheds and the Parap Hotel. What a squealing and a gasping as they swayed and lurched round the two right-angled bends over the railway line! Then a long straight run that ended as they soared over the Daly Street Bridge, where to those in the middle of the truck, who could see nothing on either side, they seemed to be flying through the air. Up Smith Street the tyres hissed in water lying on the road, and the sky was heavy with promise of more to come.

A swerve and splash as the near-side wheels ploughed into the stream coursing down the gutter, and with a flourish the truck pulled up—at the pictures. The laughing, giggling load spilled on to the footpath and streamed down the lane alongside the theatre.

Against the gloom of the surrounding black tropic night the heart of Darwin seemed gay and brightly lit, as street lights and lights from the theatre, cafés, and milk bars were doubled by reflections in the wet road. The multi-complexioned people on the footpath gave an impression of haste and urgency strange to lethargic Darwin as they hurried, with an occasional eye cocked to the foreboding sky, to attain their several goals before the next shower.

One lone figure, more in step with the usual Darwin tempo, swayed slightly on feet wide-planted on the footpath in front of the hotel opposite. Out of the corner of his eye he saw two tall men in khaki. With instant and obvious concentration he straightened up and gazed anxiously at the sky. Clearly his sole purpose in being there was to find out what the weather portended. The policemen hesitated, looked him up and down, then shrugged and continued on into the bar. The drunk watched them out of sight, then he swung round, beat an erratic course across the street, and sought sanctuary in the picture show. By now the brief busy period was over and the street deserted, as sounds of action echoed from the theatre.

From the street entrance a gallery extended over about half the theatre. In the gallery and the seats below it, the first- and second-class patrons had their places. Tonight only a scattering of people braved the damp seats in the open, to glean what fresh air there was in the steamy atmosphere.

But right up at the front sat the aboriginals, nearly close enough to touch the horses as the goodies and baddies galloped backwards and forwards in endless pursuit.

Suddenly, without any fuss or bother, down came the rain, a torrential downpour that nearly smothered the voices from the picture. There was a quick scramble further back, as those who were in the open scuttled back for shelter. The third-class patrons, having no shelter to seek, did what people do in North Queensland when it rains—they got wet.

After a few minutes the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started. Then the coloured folks could sit and steam, with a great squelching sound when anyone shifted on a seat. Mary worried a bit about how her dress was going to look tomorrow, but brushed the thought aside to concentrate on the screen.

At half-time the side door was opened and everybody went out into the lane. Some of those who had money followed the lane as far as Cavenagh Street to buy ice-cream or lemonade. But most of them, like Mary, just stood about and talked.

Under some trees opposite the end of the theatre stood an insanitary convenience. Mary waited shyly till the people were drifting back into the theatre and then went down there. As she came out again, a figure lurched round the tree and bumped into her. Mary tried to get away, but the man hung on to her arm to hold himself up. He straightened himself up, and in the dim light from a distant lamp Mary saw it was Bud Baker. His bloodshot eyes were nearly popping out of his head and his bottom lip was sagging. At the same time, he recognized her.

‘Why, shtrike me dead, s’my lil’ Mary. Here, givesh kish.’

With a sudden heave he swung her round behind the tree and wrapped his arms about her, nearly dragging her down with his sagging weight. ‘Givesh kish,’ he mumbled, trying to find her lips.

Mary was badly frightened; she struggled desperately to get away. ‘You fool,’ she hissed, ‘let me go!’ In her anxiety her voice rose high and sharp. ‘Oh, Bud, you fool, let me go!’

A heavy hand grasped Bud and spun him into the open. Two big policemen stood there. ‘Is he annoying you, miss?’ one of them asked. Then, as Mary stepped into the light, flushed red as a beet, eyes miserable and downcast: ‘God, she’s an abo. Oh, you’ll come with us, me lad.’

The policeman took a better grip on Bud, who was trying to pull away. ‘Lemme go, lemme go,’ he howled, and started to twist and turn. The second policeman jumped in, grabbed Bud’s arm, and twisted it up his back. Bud nearly doubled up. ‘Oh,’ he moaned, ‘you’ll break my arm.’

The policeman gave another twist, then slackened off. ‘O.K., then, mebbe you’ll stand still now.’

Bud’s face was white. He was a lot more sober now. ‘Look,’ he said in a placating voice, ‘you got nothin’ on me. I done nothin’. ’

The first policeman sneered. ‘Oh, no, you’ve done nothing. Only in company of an aboriginal woman between the hours of sunset and sunrise. That’s nothing, is it?’ He laughed a very unpleasant laugh. ‘It’ll hold you for a while. Now, mind your P’s and Q’s, and come quiet or you’ll get something else.’

The second policeman said: ‘What about her? We taking her?’ The other thought for a minute. ‘No, we won’t bother. We can always get her if we want her.’

He turned to Mary, who was standing twisting her fingers, a picture of abject misery. ‘What name belongs you?’

Mary murmured, ‘Mary.’

‘Well, Mary, you bin gettem longa picshers quick smart. Tomorrow you bin stopem longa compound, savee?’

His eyes and voice snarled at her. Mary shrank back and nodded her head weakly. ‘Go on—get!’ he snapped, and she turned and ran.

The screen was a blur for the rest of the show. Mary neither saw nor heard what was going on. She was numb with despair. She had heard other girls talking about how serious it was to be caught with a white man, and she didn’t know what would happen to her. It might be gaol or anything. Just as she was feeling more hopeful for the future!

As Mary made her way with dragging feet across the yard of the compound, she felt numb from long-sustained tension. It was eleven o’clock when the summons had come to her to report to the Superintendent’s office, and she had been in a sweat of fear and anxiety since early morning.

Soon after breakfast Mary had been called before Mr. Robinson. He had told her that a phone message from the police had informed him of her escapade the previous night, and that she was to be ready to go to court at any time. For half an hour he had lectured her and left her feeling helpless and hopeless to await a summons to go to court. Mr. Robinson had received word soon after that the case was not to be heard that day, but hadn’t bothered to tell Mary, so she had stewed all morning.

A strange white man, tall and thin, with a long sorrowful face, was sitting in the office as Mary nervously hesitated on the doorstep. ‘Come in, girl, come in,’ called Mr. Robinson. ‘Well, here she is, Mr. Dewey,’ he said to the other man. ‘I’ll leave you to talk to her. You’ll have no trouble. She speaks good English.’ He turned to Mary as he was leaving. ‘Mr. Dewey wants to speak to you about Baker, the man you were with last night. Don’t forget what I told you this morning,’ and with a warning frown he left the room.

The tall, thin man raised himself to his feet slowly. When he was fully extended he seemed to tower a couple of feet over Mary. Not having the least idea what to expect, she looked up at him a trifle nervously, despite the feeling that had been growing on her all morning that things had reached the stage where it was no use worrying any more. However, all he did was to pull a chair up close to his, and motion her to sit down in it.

‘Come on,’ he said, in a dry husky voice that somehow matched a face so thin it seemed to be dehydrated. ‘Come on,’ he repeated, ‘sit down. I won’t hurt you. I only want to be able to talk to you without everyone hearing.’

Mary perched on the extreme edge of the chair, her face tightly composed. ‘Good,’ said Mr. Dewey, with an attempted smile that only served to deepen the wrinkles and accentuate the mournful expression of his face. ‘Now, I believe you know Bud Baker.’

Mary nodded, and then, clearing her throat, managed to blurt out: ‘What does this mean? That there’s no court case on today?’

The tall man inclined his head. ‘That’s right. The case is not on until tomorrow. Why, didn’t they tell you?’

‘Oh,’ Mary gasped, ‘and I was so worried.’

‘Well, you’ve got another day to worry about it. But meanwhile I have some questions I want to ask you on behalf of Mr. Bud Baker.

‘I am a lawyer,’ he began. Then, thinking Mary did not understand, he added: ‘That is, I speak for people in the courts. Mr. Baker has asked me to speak for him. I thought he was a fool, just throwing money away, because he was certain to go to gaol anyway. But since I have seen you I am not so sure. He might be right.’

Leaning forward a little, he went on to explain. ‘It was his idea for me to see you. He thinks he can claim that he mistook you for an ordinary free citizen, since you look so well and speak so well. This, besides the fact that he has only been a few weeks in the Territory, should be enough to justify a mistake. The only catch is that you know him. But if you would say in court that you had never seen him before there might be a chance for him.’

The expression on Mary’s face was not very encouraging. Mr. Dewey must have seen this for he hurried on. ‘You see, this is very serious for Baker. He is likely to get six months’ gaol unless you help him. Since you are not up on any charge it can’t make any difference to you. He thought that even if you were a little annoyed with him for molesting you, you wouldn’t want him to do six months when you could so easily prevent it.’

He paused, but Mary said nothing, so he went on to explain. ‘You would not have to say much in court. Just answer a couple of simple questions. Baker told me to tell you that he is sorry for what he did. It was only because he was drunk. And he told me to tell you that he would give you a present if you did the right thing.’ He paused again, then asked, ‘Do you understand what I am saying?’

Mary’s eyes burned hotly and her mouth twisted as she bitterly echoed: ‘Do I understand? Yes, Mr. Dewey, I understand. Your Mr. Baker wants me to tell lies to keep him out of gaol. It’s terrible—he will go to gaol for six months, and all he did was maul an abo. And he will give me a present—what more could an abo want?’

She paused, then raced on: ‘And it won’t make any difference to me. Oh, no. Do you know what happens to abo girls who get mixed up in troubles like that, Mr. Dewey? I do, I was told by Mr. Robinson this morning. They are sent to outlying settlements, like Delissaville or even further. And they might never get back here again. Do you know what that means to me? Here, I had faint hopes that some day I might raise myself up to be a human being instead of just an abo. If I get sent to an outback settlement, I am an abo for life—a light-coloured gin. In a few years I could count on having a tribe of various-coloured piccaninnies. I have a white baby now, and she would be brought up as an abo too.’

Mary’s voice was husky with emotion. ‘That is all the difference it means to me to be mauled by a drunken white man, Mr. Dewey.’

His voice was a little more husky too. ‘Oh, but I had no idea—’ he began.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Mary interrupted, more calmly. ‘Mr. Baker was too drunk to remember, no doubt, but I said to him very clearly, “You fool, Bud, let me go,” just as the police arrived, so the police know he knew me before.

‘They told all this to Mr. Robinson. That’s why he attacked me this morning.’ Her voice was bitter again. ‘He said I must have encouraged Baker. And although the police told him what I said, and I told him what had happened, he just wiped that off. “You encourage these men and tease them, and then scream when you get caught,” he told me. “You coloured girls are all the same.” But, as far as Baker is concerned, Mr. Robinson said that although he sympathized with him a bit, the Department would press the case against him. The Department is being blamed for that kind of thing happening all the time, but it’s not often the white men get caught. So they want to make an example of somebody. So that’s the position for Baker, Mr. Dewey.’

Mr. Dewey stood up and stretched his long length. ‘Well, it seems I have been wasting my time,’ he said, turning round to look for his hat. ‘I told Baker it would be a waste of time and money when he first spoke to me about it.’

He came back, twirling his white panama in his hand and stood drooping over Mary. ‘I really only agreed to take the case because he pleaded so hard. He is desperately afraid of going to gaol. So, if you are worried about the business, at least you can be sure he is sweating too.’

Mary too stood up, and looked at the lawyer. ‘He is afraid of gaol?’ she asked.

‘I never saw a man more afraid,’ said Mr. Dewey with a little laugh. ‘You’d think six months in Fanny Bay was the end of the world.’

Mary looked down at her hands, her voice sounded brittle as if it were being forced through a constricted throat. ‘There is still one thing Baker could do to help himself.’

The panama hat stopped twirling. ‘Oh,’ asked Mr. Dewey, ‘and what is that?’

Mary jerked her head up and looked full at him, her face set, but a light in her eyes more of anguish than defiance. ‘He could claim he wanted to marry me.’ Having got the worst out, she went on more easily. ‘You know the Department likes to have white men marry coloured girls? You do know? It is right, isn’t it?’ she broke off anxiously.

The long face wavered slightly in a half-nod. ‘It seems so, at times,’ he replied. ‘But any white man wanting to marry a native girl must apply to the Department for permission before he can be in her company.’

Mary went on hurriedly: ‘Yes, but Bud could say he had only just decided and asked me, but that he hadn’t had time to ask the Department, when he met me by accident and made the mistake. I could say the same.’ Her voice was eager now. ‘The man who speaks in court for the Department might believe us and be friendly. I know it is not Mr. Robinson, because he told me he doesn’t go to court. And if he were friendly, the judge might be so too.’ She stopped and looked up anxiously at the tall man.

‘Yes,’ he replied slowly. ‘Such a plea might have an effect. Of course,’ he warned, ‘I have no idea whether Mr. Baker would be prepared to go so far to try to avoid gaol. But if he were, a lot would depend on you.’ He looked searchingly into the moist eyes upturned to his. ‘Could you tell a lie—and stick to it if you were cross-questioned! You know, a lot of coloured people can’t.’

‘I have learned a lot from white people in the past year or two,’ Mary replied bitterly. ‘I think I can tell a lie. You see,’ she added, ‘I would be taking a big risk. If Bud Baker should try this and fail, he loses nothing. He only goes to Fanny Bay just the same. But for me, if I try and fail, it is the finish. I am in Mr. Robinson’s hands, and he will be sure I have tried to put something over him. I shall be sent to the furthest settlement he knows of—and my sentence will be for life—yes, I think I could tell a lie.’

She stood there pathetically proud and defiant, her eyes smouldering, her threadbare dress all crumpled from last night’s rain, save where it was stretched tightly across her hips and heaving breasts. The brilliant sunlight streaming in through the open door at her side brought out the lights in her glossy black hair, and made the smooth skin of her arm and face glow golden. The lawyer was reminded of a picture he had seen of a Christian girl waiting for Nero’s lions. She is really lovely, he thought, with an unaccustomed catch in his throat.

‘Yes, Mary, I think you could,’ he murmured. She noticed that he used her name for the first time.

He continued: ‘All I can do is tell Baker of your ideas, and perhaps assure him that it would give him a definite chance. I might say that, although in general I am not in favour of mixed marriages, in this case, if young Baker won you, I think he need never be ashamed of his wife.’

He raised his hand. ‘See that,’ he said. ‘If we go on with this, I will raise my hand like that when I see you at the court. So you will know what to say.’

He looked at his watch. ‘Phew, I’d better call Robinson and tell him a story or he will be grilling you all day to find out what kept us so long. It was only by a personal favour that he allowed me to speak to you at all. You’d better go now before he comes, and I’ll have a talk to him.’

Mary had stumbled across the yard on her way to the office because her brain was numb and dazed. As she went back she stumbled again, but this time it was because her brain was literally seething. Oh, to be out of here, and free—but wasn’t it foolish to run such a risk? It wasn’t likely that Baker would consider marrying her, but—but . . .

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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