No Sunlight Singing

Book Three, Chapter 3

The utility truck was of the thoughtless modern type, smooth steel sides with no footholds. Thankful that the driver had not left his seat, Mary pulled her precious, delicate dress to her waist to clamber aboard.

That dress had caused her many anxious moments the previous afternoon—trying to wash it clean without rubbing holes in the tender fabric—hanging it out wet to avoid wrinkles, keeping close watch on a threatening sky—then, when it was safely dry at last, carefully stitching sprung seams and weak places. Now, to save the dress, she stood in the truck, precariously clinging to the smooth cabin as they raced into town. She could not help looking down, though every glance at the dress deepened her feeling of depression.

An imposing structure with columns and arches was the, vague idea of a court she had gained from books and papers. Inside was a huge room with bewigged judges and men of law, and crowds of people. A shabby, barefoot creature could well quail at the thought.

The utility sped through the town and slid to a halt before an undistinguished-looking, boxlike timber building before Mary’s thoughts came back to earth. Still preoccupied, Mary pulled the skirt up her shapely thighs to vault out of the truck, and didn’t even notice the long low whistle from the driver. That cheeky-looking youth waved to the front of the building. ‘You wait there,’ he said. He smacked his lips as he watched her walk across to the court.

A narrow verandah or porch didn’t prevent the morning sun from beating fiercely on the front of the court. A steamy heat arose from the waist-high grass all round as the night’s rain was thirstily sucked up into the cloudless sky. Over the road, an island of shade in a sea of sun-swept grass, a rambling old house was nearly hidden from sight by gross bottle trees, graceful palms, and a deep mound of bougainvillaea-covered trellis.

A thumping and scraping, as of chairs and tables being moved about, was all Mary could hear from the court. The driver left the door of the utility open as he sat on the seat. Mary could feel his eyes on her but when she turned to him and frowned he only grinned and winked.

This small annoyance was soon brushed aside. A car pulled up, and Mary’s heart beat faster as she saw the long thin form of Mr. Dewey unfolding itself from behind the steering wheel. With her eyes focussed on him, she hardly recognized the nuggety form of Bud Baker as he walked round the car and joined the lawyer. Like him, Bud wore a white drill suit, but where Mr. Dewey’s whites clung to him as if they belonged, Bud and his suit looked strained and awkward as if theirs was a very recent acquaintance.

Mr. Dewey gave no sign he even noted Mary’s presence as they walked to the door of the courthouse. Her heart gradually slowed down, her feelings were so mixed she didn’t know whether she was relieved or despondent.

At the door Mr. Dewey turned, smiled, and raised his hand. Mary’s heart stopped, then, as she drew a gasping breath, burst into a mad gallop. She stood transfixed, eyes glued to the doorway. As her heart slowed down her brain began to race.

‘Are you Mary?’ A voice at her shoulder, and she spun round as if shot. The short, chubby man looked even chubbier in white shorts and long stockings, like a fat overgrown schoolboy. But there was nothing boyish about the balding brow he mopped as he fanned himself with a panama.

Mary swallowed hard. ‘Yes, I’m Mary.’

‘Right, then you just wait here and you’ll be called if we need you. But I don’t suppose we shall.’ He turned to the driver of the utility, who was standing now, leaning on the car door. ‘You can go now, Mark. I’ll run her back to the compound. I have to go out there.’

‘O.K., Mr. Slater!’

Mr. Slater hurried into court.

A scraping of feet inside, and a voice intoning words Mary couldn’t catch. A man came out and stood by the door. A small, dapper man this, his double-breasted navy blue would have branded him an alien, but for the deep creases that shouted of long months in a suitcase. Mary thought he too must be waiting to be called.

A variety of voices now. Then a loud voice and heavy feet coming towards the door, ‘Calling Stanley Adams—calling Stanley Adams—calling Stanley Adams.’ Before the last words were out the man by the door had stubbed his cigarette and gone into the court. More voices, but not for long, soon there was a scraping and shuffling. Then out came Stanley Adams, looking tiny alongside a giant with widespread nose and crinkly ears.

‘You got off light at a spin.’

‘Jeez, I’ll say. Lucky you come along. I was gone a million till you . . .’

The voices died away in the direction of the nearest hotel.

Voices again. Mary was feeling numb, wondering if she would be able to think, let alone speak. Then at last the heavy feet and the loud voice, ‘Calling aboriginal Mary—calling aboriginal Mary—calling aboriginal Mary.’

Mary was stunned. She had never had her position in life so crudely driven home. Not a human being—but aboriginal Mary—and so proclaimed to all the world.

The policeman was outside the door, beckoning her in, while she was still standing motionless from the shock. Then the reaction set in and it was just what she needed. A flood of resentment swept over her. Her eyes glowed and she swept to the door, shoulders back and chin out.

‘Cheeky fella’ she would have been labelled if she had gone down the court like that. But at the door the chill atmosphere of the room and years of training bade her be subdued. So she walked smoothly down the little court, bare feet whispering on the boards, her eyes still burning with resentment, but becomingly veiled with long downcast lashes.

There was no chill in the physical atmosphere; rather the lifeless humidity of a deserted hothouse, where no plants pour out the scent of their luxurious growth. But the spiritual chill of all police courts was there. In these places there is no background of human emotion, for there are no human beings to generate emotion—the benches are bare.

The chill of indifference touched Mary as she walked between rows of empty benches. Ahead of her, Mr. Dewey, a burly police sergeant, and Mr. Slater sat slumped in uncomfortable lassitude. Above and beyond them, the clerk of courts scribbled diligently, while over all a shiny bald pate pored over documents. This was the last incongruous touch. Expecting to see a huge wig presiding, she was repelled yet fascinated to see instead a skull so absolutely devoid of wig. Glancing sideways, Mary noticed staring eyes in a white face anxiously following her. There was no cheek in Bud Baker today.

In her preoccupation with the glistening skull, Mary nearly walked into the dais. A sharp hiss broke the spell, and she turned to see the policeman beckoning her to a box identical with the one Bud was grasping with nervous hands. As Mary stepped into the box, before she had time to look round, the little bird-like clerk was holding out a Bible and jabbering, ‘. . . swear to tell the truth . . .’

‘Just a minute,’ came a quiet deep voice from the Bench.

From a more level footing, Mary, not so dazzled by the shiny pate, saw a heavy-jowled face with calm eyes deep-set beside a ponderous nose. ‘Do you understand the taking of the oath?’

Mary nodded, cleared her throat, and said, ‘Y-yes, sir.’

‘Good, carry on,’ said the magistrate. The little man jabbered—then, ‘Say “I do.” ’

‘I do,’ echoed Mary, with a twinge of conscience as she raised the Bible.

But the conscience was smothered and buried deep as Mr. Dewey’s first words brought back the memory of that shameful cry—‘aboriginal Mary’.

As the little man stepped back, Mr. Dewey was on his feet. ‘Your name is Mary? You are an aboriginal?’

Mary answered automatically—then her brain cleared and she was no longer afraid of these white men, only fiercely determined to reach their level. When Mr. Dewey asked, ‘Do you know the defendant, Henry Baker!’ she had to keep her voice low to answer quietly.

‘Will you tell the court in your own words what your relations have been with Henry Baker, that is, what has happened between you? Take your time, and don’t be nervous.’ As he spoke his eyes were warning and his slow voice soothing her.

She made an appealing picture as she told her story, an innocent child of nature in her poor little dress, her voice soft but clear, and her solemn brown eyes staring straight ahead, except when she turned an occasional sideways glance through long lashes in the direction of the magistrate.

She told how she had gone to work for Mrs. Allsop. How Mr. Baker had come running over to talk to her the very first day. How he had run to the fence after that, every time she was in the yard. Mostly they had not had much time together, but on occasion, when Mrs. Allsop was busy somewhere else, they had had long talks. How he had asked her all about herself, and told her about Western Australia, and said that in W.A. he would be able to take her out. Finally, he had surprised her by asking her to marry him. She had thought he was joking, trying to play a cruel joke on her. She turned a sorrowful glance on the magistrate. Because she was an aboriginal she had thought he couldn’t be serious. But he had at last convinced her. She had said yes, she would, if he got permission from the Department of Native Affairs. He had promised to see the Department right away, on the very next day.

Then had come that terrible night when she had gone to the pictures for the first time in months. ‘I walked out of the building and in the shadow of the big tree bumped into Mr. Baker. When he recognized me, he grabbed me and tried to kiss me. I tried to pull away and to tell him that it was the wrong thing. But before I could make him understand, the police came and took hold of him.’

She turned a pitiful look on the magistrate and then back to Mr. Dewey. That gentleman sat down now and the magistrate spoke. ‘Do you wish to ask the witness any questions, Sergeant?’

The sergeant did. He rose ponderously to his feet. ‘You say you were going back to the pictures, and you had just met the defendant when the police arrived. But the constables say that all the people had gone back into the pictures.’

Mary looked sorrowfully at the magistrate. ‘There were so many people, and I felt so strange. I waited only for them to leave so I could go in the place.’

The policeman sat down. ‘That’s all, Your Worship.’

The magistrate sat up straight. ‘There’s one thing I want to get clear.’ To Mary: ‘You have said that this young man asked you to marry him and you said yes. Now do you still wish to marry him?’

‘Oh, yes,’ replied Mary.

‘Good. Now you can sit down.’

The policeman pointed to the benches in the body of the court and Mary tiptoed out and sat down, tensed to hear the verdict.

It was to the Native Affairs man the magistrate turned next. ‘Mr. Slater, you have heard the evidence given by the defendant and this witness, that they wish to get married. I may say that I was most impressed by the girl Mary. Now can you tell me what would be the attitude of your Department to this proposed marriage?’

Mr. Slater rose to his feet, his fat face gleaming with perspiration. ‘I am afraid, Your Worship, I can’t commit the Department when an application has not been received. Each application must be dealt with on its merits. But,’ and he gave an oily smirk, ‘I think I can assure the court that such an application would be very favourably received.’

The huge shining dome leant forward again. ‘Well, Mr. Dewey, I have no alternative but to find your client guilty, but I propose to suspend sentence on his entering into a bond to be of good behaviour for two years, and on condition that, subject to the consent of the Department of Native Affairs, he marry the girl Mary within one month.’ He looked questioningly at Mr. Dewey.

That gentleman climbed to his feet. ‘Thank you, Your Worship. I will arrange for the bond.’

‘Henry Baker,’ intoned the magistrate. ‘I find you guilty as charged, and hereby sentence you to six months’ imprisonment . . . .’

The court was filled with whispering. Mr. Dewey whispering to Bud Baker, the sergeant whispering to Mr. Slater, the clerk of courts whispering to the magistrate. Mary wondered what was going on. The clerk motioned to the sergeant, the sergeant to the policeman, and the policeman hurried round the Bench and through a door at the back.

Pound of booted feet and slither of bare feet—and the stage is set, a tableau of the races, white and black. From the dock, a black man now faces the court of the whites.

A broad, rugged black head on broad, rugged shoulders. From the tousled hair over the left ear a red, raised weal stretches to the corner of the eye. The opposite prominent cheekbone swells to part close the eye, while from a cut on the under side new-clotted blood smears the grizzled cheek. Dried blood and dirt stains the faded khaki shirt that strains over the knotty shoulders.

The body is immobile but the eyes, sullen and wary, turn back and forth—as once a bear chained in the pit, ears torn and snout bleeding, might warily face a ring of mastiffs. On with the baiting.

‘Aboriginal Sam charged . . . found on the night . . . prohibited place . . . town of Darwin . . . resisting arrest,’ the clerk droned on, while Mary watched those eyes.

‘Does the defendant understand English?’

‘No, Your Worship.’

‘How do you plead, Mr. Slater?’

‘Guilty, Your Worship,’ from the table, not the dock.

‘May it please the court, the facts are these.’ The burly sergeant on his feet now. ‘At 8.30 p.m. on the night of — Sam, being an aboriginal within the meaning of the Ordinance, was found by Constables Davis and Loxwood in a prohibited place, to wit, the corner of Mitchell and Knuckey Streets in the town of Darwin. When asked did he have a permit, and warned that he would be arrested, the defendant tried to run away and considerable force was necessary to arrest him and bring him to the lock-up. During the struggle Constable Davis’ shirt was torn.’

‘Yes. Mr. Slater?’

The sergeant sat down and the chubby Mr. Slater half-rose, his hands on the table propping him as he leaned forward. ‘I am informed, Your Worship, that the defendant understands he is not allowed in the town; but his lubra works in the town and lives at the house of her employer. It is believed he has visited her before; although this is the first time he has been apprehended.’

His defence concluded, Mr. Slater relaxed and let himself fall back.

Mary felt a lump in her throat as she watched those eyes. ‘Thirty days on each count, sentences to be concurrent.’ And the bear was led from the pit.

Mary was left with the haunting memory of uncomprehending, sullen and wary eyes set in a scarred and swollen black face.

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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