Book Three, Chapter 4
Mary relaxed. The blanket spread on the bare concrete was hardly the last word in comfort, but to stretch out on it in the early afternoon, with no thought of impending work, was slothful ease for Mary. The air hung heavy with the presage of the last of the rains; a lone cloud moved slowly, like a water-logged hulk dragging reluctantly with the current. Such light breeze as stirred could hardly reach ground level through the enveloping shroud of scrub and ten-foot grass. Lying in line with the open door to catch any breath of air that might stir, Mary enjoyed the titillation of the drops of sweat trickling over her bare skin; and Polly alongside her, full fed, slept regardless.
After three weeks of suspense and anxiety, everything was fixed. Nothing remained to be done. Tomorrow morning she would put on the new dress—Mary’s eyes turned to it, where it hung on the wall in isolated splendour—pick up Polly, and walk, or limp, in those awkward new shoes, out of the compound and out of this life for ever. By this time tomorrow she would be a free citizen, married to a white man. She looked again at the dress and the shoes to gain reassurance; at the shoes especially. Glistening instruments of torture they might be, but they were a token, a symbol of a social standard.
From the clothes her thoughts went back with a shudder to the dreadful day when she had met Rosie, Bud’s sister-in-law, to buy the outfit. Mary had approached her with shy hopefulness of a welcome, but Rosie, a buxom blonde, had received her with a bare tolerance, and cold blue eyes that spoke eloquently of contempt. (Naturally Mary thought this contempt was for her as a coloured girl. It was not till much later she found that Rosie’s attitude was chiefly based on the belief that Bud had been trapped against his will by a clever trick. Like most men, Bud could not admit that he had any desire to get married, he must claim he had been caught; and, of course, he had evidence to back his claim.)
Mary had plumbed the depths of humiliation that day. Tagging along, her bare feet and pitiful dress shrieking of the compound, behind the smartly dressed Rosie, she had died a thousand deaths as they pushed into the busy, glittering store. To the disdainful shop girl, Rosie’s manner had plainly said ‘it doesn’t matter what you show her, anything’s too good.’ Mary hadn’t cared much either about the dress and the other things, but she was afraid of the shoes and couldn’t summon up courage to ask for others. So she had been stuck with a pair of high-heeled patent-leather abortions.
But Polly. . . . Mary smiled tenderly and turned over to gaze lovingly on the sleeping baby. Polly had won Rosie where she had failed miserably. On Bud’s instructions, a couple of days after the shopping excursion, she had gone to visit Rosie at her home. Having no one to leave her with that day, in fear and trembling she had taken Polly along with her. It turned out that Rosie was a child lover with none of her own. The little mite, so pink and beautiful, had captivated her immediately.
They were going to live with Rosie and her husband, Bud’s brother Mark, and life wouldn’t be worth living with Rosie as an enemy. Now, and Mary glowed inwardly, it would be heaven. Rosie and Mark lived in an old army hut down by the sea. A section partitioned off would be a bedroom for Bud and Mary, with a stove in a lean-to outside. They would share the big centre section of the hut as a living-room with Rosie and Mark. Mary’s spirits soared as she thought what a lovely home she could make of it—that she would sleep again with the sound of the surf in her ears. She hadn’t met Mark, but Rosie had told her he was just an older edition of Bud, and, like him, easy-going when sober, but a bit hard to handle when drunk. Mary was sure it didn’t matter, Rosie was so obviously the boss, and Rosie loved Polly.
Mary squirmed on her hard bed, and the sweat seemed to trickle faster at the memory of that awful moment when she had told Bud about Polly. For nearly two weeks after the court case they had waited for a permit from the Department. Bud had grown increasingly impatient for her, and she had suffered doubts as to whether he was trying to get a permit, whether the Department was going to refuse, whether this, whether that . . . But she had refused to run any risks by giving way to Bud, and she hadn’t been game to tell him about Polly.
At last they lay together on the still-warm sand, the official sanction for their being in company reposing in the pocket of Bud’s trousers higher up the beach. It was a tranquil night; a vaporous sky lightly veiled a too-luminous moon, and a languorous tide barely murmured as it curtsied and withdrew from an indifferent shore. The tranquillity of the night had no influence on Bud; he was a wild lover and rough.
When the first violence of their mating storm was passed, and Bud lay, breathing deeply, beside her, Mary told him of her daughter. For a second Bud lay motionless, but it was the quiet of a volcano gathering its forces. Suddenly he sat up and ‘blew his top’. Bloody bitch taking him on—playing innocent—all these weeks leading him on—never a word—what did she take him for—buggared if he was going to keep somebody else’s bastard—leave her in the camp—give her to a mission.
The vision had come to Mary of herself choosing between buying her freedom at Polly’s expense or staying with her in the compound. Frantically she had clung to Bud, till the eloquence of her soft body had time to dim his protests; she had moulded herself to him so that every part of him could feel the thrill of warm, quivering flesh. When his muscles tensed and his voice had faltered into silence, Mary had murmured to him between kisses, her vibrant limbs maintaining a relentlessly enticing pressure. He had never thought her innocent, had he? It was only that he was offended by not being told. How could she have told him, called out across the paddock from the clothes-line, or across the court? How would one little baby hurt him? Soon she hoped to have one of his. How could Bud argue or resist when burning flesh called to burning flesh, and he was seized with a paroxysm of straining lust? Weakly he lay and weakly forgave when frenzied efforts had brought fulfilment, but Mary could not feel secure until Polly had won Rosie. But now all was safe, the wedding was tomorrow, and the only condition Bud had imposed was that from then on she break all ties with aboriginal people; she was not even to speak with one again. This condition she had readily accepted, having no friends to renounce. Susie was her only near friend and Susie understood; Susie, gentle soul, expected nothing and demanded nothing from life.
Emerging from her reverie, Mary’s mind gradually began to accept a picture her eyes had been futilely relaying for some minutes. Framed in the open doorway and brilliantly lit by the blazing sun, a little group of people stood restlessly still in the centre of the white-hot yard. Mr. Robinson was there, his lean figure bent aggressively forward. Even at that distance Mary could see, or imagine, the domineering glint in his eye. Mutely accepting his tirade, a coloured man and woman sagged in a mile-weary droop, dirty feet scuffling in the burning dust. The man, tall and bony, in filthy, ragged shirt and trousers, fawned on Mr. Robinson, his loose lips obscenely curled in a placating smirk. The woman, face obscured by the bundle on her shoulder, wilted a dutiful pace behind her lord and master. Her dirt-stiffened dress hung in straight folds, showing no sign of a human form beneath, till pipe-stem legs emerged, grey with the dust of the track.
Of a sudden Mr. Robinson swung round and pointed, no doubt telling them where to camp. Mary stiffened, and her head lifted from the floor, as the pair turned to follow the direction of the pointing finger. It was on the little black woman, with the bundle on her shoulder and blackened billy dangling from a spidery thin arm, that Mary’s eyes were focussed. As the couple started to move on a line to take them past her hut, Mary gasped, swung to her feet and darted to the door, where she peered round the jamb, screening her nakedness behind the wall.
For a moment she hung there, then swiftly turned to grab her old dress and wriggle her lush curves into it, tight as a second skin. The little figure padding mechanically across the yard jerked to a stop, then slowly turned as Mary ran out calling: ‘Meg! Meg!’
Meg it was, pathetically thin, her face aged and drawn, dirty and weary; but her eyes, though blood-veined and red-rimmed, managed a hint of a smile as Mary ran up to her.
‘Hullo, Mary,’ she croaked, then turned so that her bundle foiled Mary’s attempt to embrace her. ‘I gotta keep goin’, ’ she flung over her shoulder to where Mary stood, a pained and puzzled look on her face. Meg nodded to the gaunt figure ahead of her. ‘Can’t stop now, but see you later. Where you camp?’
Mary pointed. ‘There, the far end of that hut. But how long’ll you be? I’ll boil the billy.’
Meg was already trudging on. ‘Might be half an hour,’ she said. Mary walked slowly back to her hut, sorrowful eyes turning to follow her friend. Once there she got busy out at the back, lighting a little fire of twigs and putting a jam-tin billy on to boil. Back in the hut she peeked at Polly to make sure she was all right, then reached up to a ledge over the window. A sigh of relief as she peered into a tin and saw a pinch of dusty tea-leaves. Another grope and she brought down a dusty tin of bully beef. How lucky that she had saved this emergency meal so long!
For what seemed hours, but was probably less than the half-hour, she squatted in the shade alongside the hut, occasionally tending the fire to keep the billy near the boil.
Meg walked a little more briskly, and forced a smile on her tired face as she came up to the fire. But as Mary again tried to give her a hug she twisted away. ‘Leave me alone,’ she muttered.
Eyes clouded and face flushed, Mary bent over the fire. ‘You’d like some tea? ’Fraid I’ve no sugar or milk.’
Eager to get over the awkward moment, Meg exclaimed, ‘Oh, any way, Mary, I dyin’ for a drink.’
‘We’ll stay out here so we won’t waken the baby,’ said Mary as she carried the tea into the shade of the hut and put it down alongside a cracked and handleless cup.
‘Oh,’ gasped Meg. ‘You got a baby?’
‘My word,’ smiled Mary. ‘Have a look at her.’ And she ducked under the shutter that was propped out on a long stick.
‘Oh, Mary, she lubly,’ cried Meg. She clung to the window-ledge and craned eagerly forward. ‘You bin busy since you left Kuralla,’ she added as she at last turned away and squatted on the dusty ground.
‘No, Mary, don’ open that for me,’ as she saw Mary hacking away at the bully-beef tin with a handleless knife and a big stone. ‘Keep it. Might be you need it some time.’
Trying to keep her fingers out of danger as she hammered at the knife blade with the rock, Mary was too busy to talk until the top of the tin was bruised off. ‘There you are,’ she said with some triumph, proffering the greasy mess. ‘That should keep you going until tea-time. And don’t worry about me. I won’t need it.’
She put the jagged tin in front of Meg, then turned away with tears in her eyes as she saw Meg feverishly scooping the meat out with clawlike fingers, and gulping it down like a starving dog.
What a terrible change in Meg! she thought. What must she have gone through to bring her to this! Her cheekbones stuck out of a pinched and haggard face, and her arms and legs were only skin and bone. Worst of all, she was dirty. Here, Mary thought, was the reason Meg had turned away when she had tried to kiss her. Meg, who had always been so spotlessly clean, would be ashamed to have a friend touch her when she was dirty. Dirty she was. Not just dirty from today’s walking, but with dirt engrained in her skin as if she hadn’t washed for a week, and filthy matted hair. Mary knew she couldn’t have been on a dry track, because it was only the end of the wet season, so whichever way she had come there must have been plenty of water.
‘Tell me ’bout your baby.’ Meg’s voice broke in on her thoughts, and Mary turned round with a start, guiltily wondering if Meg had been reading her expression. If she had, Meg didn’t show it. She sat there, bony legs tucked under her, sipping tea, the meat tin over by the wall polished so that the inside shone. Some of the strain had gone from her face, and Mary thought she could soon look young again if she had plenty to eat.
Starting with the baby, Mary was soon telling all her story, and got so engrossed in it that she was going into ecstasies about tomorrow, and the great party they were going to have tomorrow night—how many people—how much drink—how much food! She broke off in confusion as she realized what she was doing.
‘I’m sorry, Meg,’ she stammered. ‘I wasn’t thinking.’
Meg sighed. The still, rapt expression faded from her face, and the faraway look from her eyes. ‘Don’ say you sorry. I glad, glad somebody bin lucky—somebody lucky,’ she echoed almost in a whisper.
‘Tell me, Meg,’ asked Mary hesitantly. ‘That man. Is he your husband?’
Meg spat fiercely on the ground. ‘I his woman,’ she said bitterly. ‘At any rate, till I get away from him.’
She saw the look on Mary’s face. ‘I know you think he no good. Well, he bad. He worse thing there is. But I din’ know, anyway I got no choice when I get away from that job.’
Mary asked gently: ‘Was that job bad, Meg? Was it as bad as we thought?’
Meg’s eyes were fixed on the ground, her voice low and spiritless. ‘Dunno what you thought, but it worse than anything I thought. But I bin help make it bad. I young an’ silly an’ don’ know a black, like a dog, gotta crawl on your belly. Then I try run away an’ get caught an’ that make it worse. But then come some good luck.’ Meg brightened up at the memory.
‘A white man stop near the station an’ start pull his truck to pieces. It old truck, an’ he on’y worker, not station boss. Day’n half he work an’ I see he got truck all together again. That night I desperate an’ I creep down to try talk to him. He orright, after while he lie quiet an’ lissen my story.
‘Then he say: “Yeh, I allus knew this Corley (that’s boss) is mean, but I never knew until now how real tough he is. You know, I bin here day’n’ half an’ the bastard never asks me if I want a hand, or if I need tucker. Jeez, you’d think we was in the city, not the Territory.”
‘I say, “How I get away from here?”
‘He quiet for minute; then, “You know you have to look for you’self somewhere if you go away?”
‘I say, “Anythin’ better’n this.”
‘He say: “Might be right. Well, if you like, I take you to Margaret.”
‘Oh, Mary,’ Meg cried. ‘I nearly die when he say that. I nearly choke. “Oh,” I gasp. “We go now?”
‘ “No bloody fear we don’t,” says Harry (that his name). “Not with my lights. We go in daylight.”
‘ “Oh, then I can’t go. Boss stop me.”
‘Harry laughs an’ hold up his fist, in moonlight it look like coconut. “Yeh, you think so?” he say.
‘ “But if I go he get pollis,” I say.
‘ “That’ll be the day,” he say. “Corley’s on’y worry is that the cops might come for him. He got little block o’ land an’ sneaks few calves from big stations. All big station owners an’ cops crooked on him.”
‘Then I think another thing. “Oh, Harry, he allus got gun.”
‘ “Yeh, I notice he’s never far from that rifle of his. But don’t worry about that. He’d shoot a black orright, but it’s diffrunt when he’s on to a white an’ so got a chance o’ gettin’ hung for it. Lissen, you ferget Corley. I’ll fix him.”
‘ “It sound too good to be true,” I whisper, “but how I get away from house?”
‘ “You got anythin’ up there?”
‘ “No, I got nothin’ .”
‘ “Well, stay here then. Yeh, that’s right, closer. I’ll go up in the mornin’ an’ tell ’em I’m takin’ you. I don’t want ’em to think you’re runnin’ away. It might give ’em ideas.” ’
Meg paused, and Mary asked excitedly, ‘Oh, Meg, and did it really happen like that?’
Meg’s eyes shone. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘just like he say. He just tell Corley an’ away we go. Oh, I had wunnerful two days with Harry, Mary. It wunnerful to be with somebody who good as anybody else. You feel so safe. Make sure of your white man, Mary.’ Her voice was almost fierce. ‘Hook him proper.’
Then more calmly she continued: ‘You know what Harry do in Margaret? ’Cos I in rags he buy me a dress. Then he say: “Well, kid, that’s about all I can do for you. You’re on your own now.” He say he can’t keep me ’cos he gotta work in town an’ there’s too many laws an’ too many cops in town. An’ it not safe for me alone ’cos Corley might find me. On’y thing is to move somewhere. I say I allus want go to Darwin.
‘So he give me some tucker. Then he point north an’ say: “There she is, kid, an open road. An’ it’s not that far. But, come to think of it, it’s not that bloody close either when you’re on the hoof. Anyway, good luck.”
‘Oh, Mary, I think mebbe I never be so sorry to leave anybody.
‘So I loose an’ ready to go to Darwin like I allus wanted.’ Meg’s voice was bitter as she said this, and her thin body rocked back and forward as she continued. ‘But I gotta be with somebody. If girl on her own, polliss pick her up smartly. So this Jimmy (that’s what they call this animal), he the on’y one coming this way, so I hook on to him.
‘I soon find why he take me. We come to camp of white men working on road. We sit down till they finish tucker. Then Jimmy he go over an’ talk. He come back with tucker but don’ give me any. He say, “White man there he bin wannem you.” I not move, so he jump up, grab a stick an’ go to bash me, so I quick go to white man. This go on allatime. Men on railway, men on roads anywhere there any men he take me. I don’ get no money, don’ get much tucker. He take the money an’ buy plonk or metho mostly metho. Soon I on it when I get chance.’
‘Oh, Meg,’ wailed Mary, ‘how horrible. But won’t metho hurt you?’
‘I dunno.’ Meg’s smoky eyes smouldered now and her voice had an edge on it. ‘What you can do? You walk all day with no tucker or not much, then you wait till white men finish eat an’ you gotta have ’em roll on you. They don’ say, “Here, have a feed first,” but they do bring out metho an’ say, “Have a charge o’ this.” One night, I pretty crook I say to one man, “I die for tucker.” He give me metho an’ tell me: “I no’ want you alive tomorrow. I want you alive tonight.” ’Course, they pay Jimmy, it not their fault I get nothing.’
Meg paused and shook her head solemnly. ‘It all crook,’ she went on, ‘but worse is we get no place. Long’s Jimmy can fin’ men who want me, so’s he can get grog, he don’ care which way we go. But,’ she said with a touch of triumph, ‘I fin’ a way to trick him. I hear men say sometime, “One thing, she’s clean.” ’Course they talk about a black like a dog, they don’ care if you hear—an’ I pleased—huh.’ She gave a scornful laugh. ‘But soon I get too tired. I don’ bother about wash, on’y if it easy. Then sometime men say, “Phew, she stink,” an’ if they have me once they don’ want me again. So I get my big idea—I don’ wash at all, no more. Soon I greasy like this’—she gestured down at herself—‘an’ nobody much have me at all.
‘Jimmy mad as hell, but he don’ know what wrong. He so dirty he don’ know no difference. So he start to hurry to Darwin where he think he get grog, an’ here we are.’
Mary’s face was streaked with tears. ‘Oh, Meg, it’s all so horrible. What can you do? Can’t you get away from him?’
‘I couldn’t on the track. Nobody else take me. Jimmy’s bad man, everybody ’fraid of him. But here I think I lose him. I think he soon be in gaol. He can’t keep away from the grog. This boss man here knows him. He tell him when we come: “You watch yourself. One little trouble in camp an’ you gone. I sent you out before an’ I send you further next time, if you not go to gaol.” Jimmy ’fraid o’ this boss orright, but he still go to town’s soon’s we get here.’
‘But that might be a long time,’ said Mary woefully. ‘Oh, there must be some way. I wish I could do something.’
‘Don’ be silly,’ answered Meg. ‘You got to look for yourself an’ the baby.’
‘Oh, the baby,’ cried Mary, jumping to her feet. ‘I’d better see if she’s all right.’
A peep through the window, and Mary was back again. ‘She’s all right,’ she said.
Both sat silent for a while, staring at the barren ground as if for inspiration.
‘I don’t know what you can do,’ said Mary at last, shaking her head despairingly. ‘It’s no use you getting a job. He’ll take your money if you earn any.’
‘Aw, forget him,’ said Meg. ‘Tell me ’bout the town an’ the picshers.’ She leaned forward eagerly. ‘Tell me ’bout the picshers. I wait years for see them.’
‘Oh, yes, that’s what I can do.’ Mary’s face brightened up. ‘I can take you to the pictures. This is the night. Oh, isn’t that lucky? And I have a few shillings.’
‘Ooh, could we?’ Years seemed to fall from Meg. But then she slumped again. ‘But you shouldn’t go. Won’t your man want you?’
‘No, no,’ crowed Mary. ‘He’s drinking with his friends tonight. I’m absolutely free. That’s if I find somebody to look after Polly.’
‘It’s no good,’ moaned Meg. ‘I can’t go like this.’ She pointed to herself in disgust.
‘I’ll fix that too. I’ve got a dress that’s better than the one I wear, but it’s too small for me. But it would be all right for you.’
Mary looked at the shadow of the hut. ‘It’s getting late. The mob will be home from work soon.’ She jumped up. ‘I’ll get the dress and a towel—you can keep both, I won’t need them again—there’s a shower over past that hut.’ She pointed. ‘And when you get clean you’ll feel better. Then we can have a talk till tea-time. And the baby will be awake, you can have a talk to my fine daughter—then we can eat, then we’ll go to the pictures.’
Mary beamed and ran inside without waiting for an answer.
When Meg came back the camp was alive with talk and laughter. The trucks had emptied their loads and everybody was happy. The sun was getting low and the worst fierce heat of the day was gone. Tonight they had to clean up, and get ready for the pictures.
Mary jumped up from where she had been sitting waiting, and her eyes lit up as she saw Meg. The soap and water had worked miracles. From a distance she looked like a carefree girl again. There was a spring in her step and her teeth were gleaming in a wide grin. Although too big for her the dress hung softly, and flowed easily about her as she walked. As she came closer the hollows in her cheeks became apparent, but could not compete with the wide grin and the sparkling eyes.
‘Oh, you look lovely, Meg,’ cried Mary, and ran to meet her with outstretched arms.
The sparkle died in Meg’s eyes, the grin changed to a frown, and she side-stepped the welcoming arms.
Mary faltered to a stop, bewildered and hurt.
Meg saw the look on Mary’s face and her own showed indecision and doubt. She chewed her bottom lip for a few seconds before making a decision. Then she glanced quickly all round and moved close to Mary to say in a low, husky voice: ‘You allatime want grab me. I don’ mean to tell you this, but ’pears I gotta. You mus’ keep away from me. I got the leprosy.’
‘O-o-oh.’ Mary shuddered as if she had been struck, and her eyes seemed to glaze over as the colour drained from her cheeks. This time Meg had to stop herself as she automatically jumped forward to hold Mary, but she did stop herself, and then stepped back a pace.
‘No, no, no,’ stammered Mary, ‘not that, Meg. Don’t say you’ve got that. You can’t tell, can you? It might be a mistake, mightn’t it?’
Meg shook her head solemnly. ‘I ’fraid I not make mistake. But don’ take on so, Mary. I thought you gonna faint. You white as ghost. An’ please don’ sing out ’bout it. I don’ want everybody know.’
Some of the colour had returned to Mary’s face, but her eyes were wet and her mouth drooped and trembled. ‘But it can’t be true, Meg. Not that on top of everything else. Are you sure of it? How d’you tell?’
‘See here.’ Meg touched her forehead. ‘You can’t see much, mebbe bit of line, but I feel it. The skin get dry an’ hard. Lola tell me how it start.’
‘But then,’ Mary burst in eagerly, just remembering to keep her voice low, ‘if it’s only just starting, the doctors will be able to cure it.’
‘I not go near any doctor,’ said Meg bitterly. ‘You hear what Lola say ’bout leper island. I not goin’ get myself stuck there. I better dead. That why I tell you keep quiet, I not goin’ tell you even, ’cos I know you on’y worry, but you keep try touch me. You got the baby now, you got chance to be like white folk. You don’ want run any risk. Remember ’f I go with you tonight, you keep you’ hands to you’self.’
‘But is it touching that gives it to you?’ asked Mary. ‘You didn’t touch Lola, did you?’
‘Yes, ’course I did,’ said Meg. ‘My mother used feed her, ’fore she die, and when I’se little kid I used grab Lola sometime. ’Course I dunno how you get it, but you allus s’posed not touch lepers.’
‘Oh, there’s Polly. I’ll have to go and feed her. Come in, Meg, and see her.’
‘No fear, I won’ go in there.’
‘But, Meg, it’s not going to be dangerous just to be in the hut.’
‘I don’ care.’ The little face was set firmly. ‘I’se not goin’ inside. But I like to see her.’ Her voice was wistful. ‘You couldn’t bring her out here, I s’pose?’
‘Of course, I’ll get something to sit on.’ Mary ran inside and came back in a minute with a box which she put down in the shade, and then hurried away to get Polly, who was howling in earnest now.
Polly was quiet, nuzzling up against Mary’s breast, trying to get through the cloth, as they came back.
‘O-o-h,’ breathed Meg, and her arms went out involuntarily. Then with a shamefaced look she thrust them behind her back. ‘Oh, Mary, isn’t she a darlin’ !’
Mary’s face glowed with pride as she sat down on the box and pulled her dress open. ‘I hope she doesn’t take too long, and doesn’t get a lot of wind. It must be nearly tea-time.’ Then her face clouded over, she felt ashamed of herself for being so happy.
‘Oh, Meg,’ she cried, ‘it’s not fair. I have so much—and you—’
‘Don’ worry ’bout me,’ said Meg bravely. ‘I jus’ wanna see Darwin an’ the picshers. Then I go bush. I not stay till somebody see what wrong and get me put on island.’
‘When did you first think you had this—this—’ Mary stumbled over the dreadful word. ‘This leprosy?’
‘On’y few weeks ago. I feel funny for long time, but never think. Then it suddenly strike me. Oh—I nearly die. But then I think, when I on the way to Darwin, I might’s well see it ’fore I go bush.’
‘But don’t you think, Meg.’ Mary’s voice was earnest and pleading, ‘don’t you think it would be better to try to get cured? It’s terrible to think of you out in the bush just slowly—oh—’ She shuddered to a stop.
‘What the use arguin’, Mary? I tol’ you I not goin’ to be stuck on that island for life. Lola say nobody never get cured, on’y one white man. She might be wrong. I lissen to people while I here, and if I hear of people get cured mebbe I try. But I ’specs to be goin’ bush ’fore long.’
‘Isn’t it dangerous? Won’t you—won’t other people be touching you?’
‘I keep away from other girls much’s I can. An’ I don’ want any man touch me. If they do, it their fault, I can’t be worry.’ A vicious look came on Meg’s face. ‘As for that animal Jimmy, if he got it, it the best thing can happen. I nearly think I should stay with him longer to try make sure he get it.’ She lapsed into silence, her pinched little face sullen and brooding.
She looked so fragile and tiny, Mary thought, everybody should be protecting her. She bent over the baby to hide her tears.
Only as the trucks braked off the road, and rocked and bumped over the gutter and through the gate of the compound, did the thrill and excitement of the night’s excursion die, and give way to sober thoughts of tomorrow.
Everything had been perfect, even the weather. Though clouds had drifted over a couple of times, so low that they appeared to brush the screen, they had laboured heavily on to drop their burden directly into the sea. When rain threatens, fine weather is an exciting gift to those sitting in an open-air picture show.
Mary had thrilled and shrilled as never before at the antics on the screen. With the two of them to supplement each other’s emotions, excitement had piled on excitement until they were shrieking and gasping. The show had been ideal, the wildest of all Wild Westerns where every gun fired fifty shots without reloading, every horse galloped fifty miles without turning a hair, and the hero and heroine fell fifty times into the traps of the villains without receiving a scratch.
At half-time they had adventured down the ill-lit lane to Cavenagh Street, Mary keeping a fearful eye on trees and bushes, in case any drunken white man should stagger out to trap her again. From the Chinese schoolgirl in the little shop Mary had bought two ice-creams, then with the air of a connoisseur had introduced Meg to the delights of the frozen sweet.
The second half of the show, with the delirious comedy of cartoon creatures, followed by the hair-raising adventures of a wild man swinging through the trees to wrestle with jungle beasts, provided them with material for excited chatter until they reached the compound again.
But as they clambered off the truck, and the other happy people scattered to their camps, the shadow of tomorrow crept over them and they moved slowly and silently through the black night.
For Meg the brief holiday was over and the future stretched ahead sordid and cruel, with no ray of hope to lighten the way, nor any friendly hand to hold hers when she should grow frightened and weary.
The pleasurable thrill, strongly mixed with apprehension though it might be, with which Mary had looked forward to her new life, was now smothered by her fears for Meg. It seemed cruel and heartless to leave Meg alone to face life with that terrible Jimmy, and over and beyond all that the creeping terror of the still more terrible disease.
Harrowed by her thoughts, it was Mary who first broke the silence. ‘Oh, Meg, what can we do? It seems wrong for me to leave you like this. What can we do!’
They came to a standstill by the door of Mary’s hut, their faces lit by the pale reflected glow of a light inside the hut. ‘What can we do?’ echoed Meg, her face looking old and drawn in the half-light. ‘What can anybody do? Nothin’. There nothin’ to worry about. Soon’s I get rid o’ this big bludger everythin’ be orright.’
‘Well, what about him tonight?’ asked Mary, her voice taut with strain. ‘Won’t he be crooked on you tonight? You’d better sleep with me.’
‘Don’ be silly,’ said Meg sharply. ‘I tol’ you I not go in your hut. Anyway, I not worry tonight, he be out to it by now. You keep nag, nag, nag. You don’t have to worry ’bout me.’
‘Sorry, Meg,’ murmured Mary, with a catch in her voice. ‘I was only trying to help. I just feel that I should be able to help somehow. Isn’t there anything I can do?’
Meg’s eyes glistened palely in the wan light. She made as if to speak, her lips moved, but no words came, then she got out hesitatingly, ‘Mary, there one thing I like.’
‘Yes, Meg,’ Mary burst in eagerly. ‘What is it? Oh, tell me. What can I do?’
‘Well.’ The low voice stopped and started again. ‘You talk about big party your place and plenty grog.’ She hesitated, then rushed on. ‘I on’y think mebbe you could get me some plonk. You know,’ she hurried to explain, ‘jus’ somethin’ left nobody want. Then I feel I celebrate same as you.’
Meg’s eyes looked big and pathetic as they searched Mary’s face and saw the hesitancy there. ‘Oh, don’ bother,’ she added hastily. ‘I on’y thought.’
‘No, no,’ said Mary hastily. ‘I was only wondering how.’ Her mind raced; surely she could manage a little thing like that for Meg? ‘Yes, I’ll get you something, but how will I . . .’ She hesitated again. ‘You see, I can’t come down here.’
‘Oh, don’ worry ’bout that,’ Meg put in eagerly, her tongue running avidly over her lips. ‘F’you can get it, I get it off you. You say this road go down to where you live. I go down near there the next morning an’ wait.’ She looked anxiously at Mary. ‘I not want you do anything wrong.’
‘Oh, I’ll get you some plonk,’ said Mary, more bravely than she felt.
‘Well, I just sit in the bush near the road,’ said Meg. ‘You come any time, you jus’ leave the bottle in the grass. You don’ go near me, I see you an’ I get it. That orright?’
‘Yes, that should be easy,’ answered Mary, her eyes moist as they dwelt on the peaked little face. ‘Oh, Meg, what can we do?’
‘You don’ worry,’ said Meg with a grin. ‘You jus’ ’member I wait on the road. Now better say g’night an’ good luck. I prob’ly can’t get here in the morning.’
Mary involuntarily raised her arms, but Meg waved her away. ‘Good luck,’ she said, and turned slowly away.
The novel No Sunlight Singing is Copyright © Joe Walker 1960.
This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.
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