No Sunlight Singing

Book Three, Chapter 5

By ten o’clock the Bakers’ party was in full swing, the last stragglers had arrived and found a niche for themselves in the crowded room and the spirit of celebration was being imbibed in real earnest.

The unloveliness of the ex-army hut was all too apparent, despite the few curtains camouflaging the walls, a makeshift ceiling hiding most of the black-iron roof, and scattered grass mats softening the appearance of the concrete floor. But few workers in Darwin had any other kind of accommodation, and fewer still had anything better.

A score or so of people sat, or perched, round the room: on a couple of old settees, a few odd chairs, a few boxes converted into stools or chairs and on others, naked, unashamed, unconverted, but nonetheless seats for the night. The women in featherweight dresses and the men mostly in shirts and long trousers (partly a concession to convention, and partly to the mosquitoes) had one thing in common, they all looked flushed and sweaty.

Over a table in the centre of the room, half-covered with bottles—whisky, gin, brandy, rum, port, sherry, and villainous-looking cocktail—leaned Bud. Bud, flushed and sweating, was pouring beer into glasses while Rosie stood by, evidently remonstrating. Under the table, surrounded by empty bottles, a washtub showed a few bottle-necks peeping out of a mound of straw and broken ice.

Les jumped up and came over to the table. ‘Rosie’s right, Bud. Y’should be entertainin’ the guests. Give’s a song or a speech.’

‘Too right,’ came the chorus. ‘Give’s a song. No, speech—speech.’

As Bud turned to face the crowd, Les edged in behind him and grabbed a bottle.

‘Phew,’ sighed Rosie, mopping her brow. ‘About time somebody took over. Look at the mess.’ She pointed to the table, swimming with beer. ‘He wouldn’t let me do it. Hang there now. Don’t let him back.’

‘I won’t,’ said Les with determination. ‘There’s not enough beer to waste. An’ you go easy, Rosie. Don’t push beer on anybody. Let ’em drink wine or spirits if they will. There’s not much beer for us that likes it, without pushin’ it on them that don’t appreciate it.’

Bud’s face glowed. He didn’t exactly waver on his feet, but sort of quivered, as if he might easily waver. He held up his hands. ‘Lissen, I can’t make a shpeech.’

‘Speech, speech!’ they called.

Then a male voice, ‘The bride, where’s the bride?’

The chorus echoed the cry: ‘Yes, the bride. Where’s the bride?’ Bud peered round. ‘Yeah, where are yer? C’mon, Mary. C’mon here.’

From a dim corner, behind a group of people, Mary rose to her feet and hesitated. The calls doubled and she threaded her way to Bud’s side.

Her golden skin had a deep rose tint from excitement and embarrassment and her eyes glistened beneath long lashes. The dress, though not close-fitting, was soft enough to cling to her magnificent figure as she walked. A trifle gaudy, through no choice of hers, its flamboyant colours gave a touch of barbaric splendour to her exotic beauty, which was crowned by a multi-coloured silk kerchief loosely knotted in her mass of glossy black hair.

Bud’s eyes glowed through the beer haze and he reached out to pull her to him. ‘Here y’are,’ he cried. ‘Y’want a speech. Well, take a look. Y’can see what I got. Did all ri’ for meself, eh?’

While the mob roared, Bud gave her a kiss that was both loud and long. At last Mary managed to pull away. ‘Oh, Bud, not here,’ she pleaded, face burning like fire.

‘O.K.,’ Bud shouted, ‘everybody drink up. Here, Mary, I’ll get you one.’ He picked up a tumbler and started to get a bottle of beer. ‘Oh, no, you won’t drink beer.’ He put down the beer, grabbed a bottle of whisky, and filled her glass as if it was beer. ‘Right now. Bottoms up!’

Mary stood demurely while they drank and knocked holes in the smoke-cloud with ‘For They are Jolly Good Fellows’. Then she sneaked quietly back to her corner.

Overflowing a chair that creaked constantly in protest, a fat, red-faced woman streamed with sweat as she sipped a glass of port. Mary pulled a wry face. ‘Here y’are, dear. Sit down here again,’ and the fat woman patted a box alongside her.

‘Not just now,’ said Mary, ‘I’ll have to see how the baby is.’ She went on through the door into their own room. Putting down her glass, still nearly full of whisky, Mary peered through the mosquito net round a little cot to see how Polly was getting on. All night the baby had been tossing and turning and whimpering. She had seemed flushed and hot and Mary was greatly worried, as this was the first time she had ever had anything wrong with her. This time Polly appeared to be rather quieter, and at least no hotter, so Mary turned away a bit reassured.

As her eyes fell on the whisky, an idea came to her. Amid all the excitement and worry she had still found time to think of Meg and her bottle of drink, but couldn’t find a way to get any. She had hoped that some would be left in their room, but it had all been put in the big room and she could think of no way of getting a bottle. If she waited till after the party there might be none left, or so little that if any was taken it would be noticed. But this big glass of whisky suggested a solution. There were empty bottles here, left from Bud’s drinking in the afternoon. If she poured the whisky into one of them it would be a good start. She would only have to get two or three glasses more during the evening and the bottle would be nearly full.

Picking up a bottle, Mary peered fearfully round the door and then tipped the whisky into it and hid it under Polly’s cot. Another glance through the net, then she went out to sit down by the fat woman.

‘Ah, there you are,’ exclaimed that lady in a deep, throaty voice. ‘An’ how’s baby now? Pore little thing. So damned hot, it is.’

‘Oh, she seems a bit better, Mrs. Harris, thanks. I suppose I’m worrying about nothing.’

‘Yes, I s’pose. But we all do that. Anyway, I’m glad to hear she’s looking all right, you can’t never be too careful, ’specially this weather. But don’t call me missus, Mary.’ The powder, carelessly slapped over florid cheeks, showed caked and streaked with sweat as she bent earnestly over Mary. ‘Everybody calls me Mabel. An’ remember, we’ve gotta be friends, now we live so close. Come on, let’s hear you say it.’

Hugging her knees as she squatted on the low box, Mary rocked back to look up into the beaming, friendly face, ‘All right—Mabel,’ she said with a shy smile. ‘You know how much I want to be friends, but it’s all strange to me.’

‘Don’t worry, honey.’ Mabel reached down to pat Mary’s hand. ‘We’re all easy-goin’ round here. Before you know it you’ll be one of the mob.’

Meeting the guests as they arrived, Mary had caught glimpses of wariness in the eyes of the women, and felt the calculation behind the smiles. She had also felt the penetration in the stares of the men. Being keyed up with expectation of hostility she had not connected the former with the latter, but had accepted as fact her fancy that all the women despised her as an upstart from the compound.

Disconsolate and lonely, Mary had stood about, hoping that she would be drawn into some of the work of entertaining the people. Being half-drunk, Bud had been obsessed with the obligation to get his guests into a similar state as soon as possible. And Rosie had been too busy keeping an eye on Bud, and carrying drinks, to coach a new chum.

In this mood of depression Mary had reacted eagerly to the beaming face and offers of friendship of Mrs. Harris. She was their next-door neighbour so they must be friends, Mrs. Harris had told her, and if ever she needed any help Mary was urged to tell Mrs. Harris. So Mary had clung to this haven of a friendly smile, and the seclusion from stares afforded by close-packed bodies on a settee in front of her.

For her part, Mrs. Harris was delighted to have secured that rare treasure—a willing, attentive, and totally unspoiled listener.

Hearing the statement that she would soon be one of the mob, Mary looked a little doubtful. ‘But don’t they look down on me as an aborigin—?’ she started to ask.

Mrs. Harris waved a hand vigorously. ‘Don’t talk like that,’ she cried. ‘There’s two coloured families in our camp already, and they’re right with everybody.’

‘I thought everybody stared so hard at me,’ Mary murmured. ‘Especially the women seemed fierce.’

Mrs. Harris smacked her thigh and chuckled. ‘I’ll say they would. And because the men stared so hard an’ wasn’t fierce, the women stared so fierce. S’ony natcherl, honey. See how all the men flock round that Daisy?’ She nodded to where a knot of men almost obscured the siren in the beachdress. ‘That’s what I mean. That’s how they’d be with you f’you give ’em half a chance. An’ o’ course the women don’t like it—but they get over it. For mine it suits me down to the ground. See my husband there? There he is right in the middle. Well, he’s allus like that. He hangs round a bit o’ leg like a blowfly round cabbage water, can’t help hisself. But do I scream?’ She turned to Mary with a wide grin. ‘ ’Course I do. I give him hell. But it does us both good. I let off steam and he’s easy to handle for a week after.’

Bud weaved through the throng, a bottle in each hand. Evidently Rosie and Les were still shepherding the beer, but Bud had whisky in one hand and wine in the other. ‘Where’sh your glasses now? Hold ’em out.’

‘Well, well, here’sh me old pal Mabel. And her glash empty, dyin’ o’ starvation.’

‘Don’t worry about me starving, Bud,’ said Mabel, as she took back her full glass. ‘If it had been empty long I’d ’a’ been screamin’. Anyway, I’ve got your wife here to look after me.’

‘What—’ Bud peered across her. ‘So that’sh where you are. I thought you must o’ shot through. Here, give’sh your glass. You gotta shing too.’

‘Oh, no, Bud,’ Mary gasped. ‘I couldn’t. I don’t know any songs.’ Her face was horror-stricken.

‘That’sh nothin’. ’ Bud gave her a brimming glass and airily waved the bottle. ‘You shing with me. I don’t know any shongs either, so we’ll make a good pair. You be ready soon’s Bert’s done.’

‘Oh, Mabel,’ wailed Mary, ‘I couldn’t stand out there and sing. And I really don’t know any songs.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ said Mabel. ‘You only sing with Bud. It’s a bit o’ fruit. I never heard him try more’n one song. That’s “Waltzin’ Matilda”. You must know the words o’ that.’

Mary was forced to admit she knew some of the words. ‘Well, there you are,’ exclaimed Mabel. ‘You sing what you know and pretend to sing the rest. You needn’t worry, with Bud goin’ to town they wouldn’t hear you, anyway. The main thing is to get out in front. You do that and you’ll soon be one o’ the mob.’

The hum of conversation died as Bud called for silence. Soon eyes were misting over and heads nodding and drooling with sentiment as, in a pleasant tenor voice, Bert sang the old songs of Ireland and Scotland. Drunks everywhere favour songs of exile, and in Darwin they all fancy themselves as exiles, so the ballads worked like fruit saline on the springs of emotion.

Stirred from a beery doze, Mark, Bud’s brother, swayed and jerked in time to the song, with moist eyes and working mouth.

As Bert sang himself out and retired to soak up more liquid inspiration, Bud dragged Mary out of the corner. ‘Ladeez an’ Gen’emen,’ he announced, leaning on Mary, one arm round her, fondling, ‘you are now to be entertained by a duet from Mr. an’ Mrs. Baker. Ah, ha,’ as a long, slim youth dragged a mouth organ out of his pocket and stood up. ‘Now we’ll give you the worksh. “Waltzin’ Matilda”, Tommy.’

Tommy and Mary had trouble to keep pace as he ‘waltzed Matilda’ with gusto. Mary found she needn’t have worried about how she could sing. Her sweet low voice could not compete with Bud’s as he attacked with vim and vigour, having little consideration for the tune and none at all for the words. Others started to come in, and soon ‘Matilda’ was shaking the roof.

Flushed with success, Bud let go of Mary to use both hands in conducting community singing, and she soon drifted back to her corner. Before long the singing languished and Tommy was left playing quietly to one group, as the others split into knots of ardent gossipers.

Carrying round the supper Mary at last began to feel friendliness about her. As nothing wins the hearts of party-goers like efficient service with food, she soon piled up stacks of good will. Retiring again to her corner by Mrs. Harris, Mary felt the inner glow of the outsider who has arrived.

By the early hours the party was beginning to break up. All community effort was abandoned and little knots of people stood about arguing and nagging, trying to goad themselves to the supreme effort of taking their leave.

Mark was completely dead to the world and Rosie was showing some effects. Bud was still on his feet, but hanging heavily, on the ever more frequent occasions he groped around Mary. Though she had been very careful and had saved what she could for Meg’s bottle, Mary herself was feeling dazed. It was with a curious feeling of detachment, and through an alcoholic mist, that she watched what was going on about her.

Her drink-dulled conscience came to life—she must see how Polly was, and fill up Meg’s bottle. ‘Whash wrong now?’ mumbled Bud, as she twisted away from him and picked up her half-filled glass. ‘You allush goin’ shomeplace.’

‘I have to see how Polly is,’ said Mary with the painstaking diction of one unsure, ‘you know she’s been ill tonight.’

He leaned on the table and muttered unintelligibly as she left him and went into the other room. She sighed with relief as she groped under the net and felt Polly cool and quiet. She could relax now. It didn’t even matter if she was a bit squiffy if she didn’t have to worry about the baby.

The bottle was almost full, she found, when she pulled it from under the cot. This drop would fill it right up. She bent over it, straining to pour carefully.

‘Wha’ the ’ell’s thish?’

The glass crashed to the floor and the bottle was clutched nervously to her as Mary spun round. Bud stood just inside the door, swaying a little on wide-set feet, face screwed in an agony of concentration.

‘Wha’ you doin’? Fillin’ a bottle, eh? Who for?’

Mary stood ashen-faced and trembling; she couldn’t say a word, just clutched the bottle to her side.

Bud moved slowly forward. ‘Who’sh it for? Who’sh it for! Shpeak up!’ His voice gradually rose and then burst into a hoarse scream, and his face contorted with rage as a thought struck him.

‘For your black friends, eh? For a dirty big black boong! My grog!’

His hand swooped for the bottle and hurled it through the window to crash like a bomb on rocks outside.

As his hand came back he swung it backhanded at Mary’s face. She instinctively ducked and missed the full force of the blow, but it knocked her off balance and she sprawled in the corner by the head of the bed.

By this time Rosie and a couple of others were in the room, and the rest were packed around the doorway, peering in.

Mary lay stretched out on the floor in her first party dress, back half-propped against the leg of the bed, face ghastly white save for angry finger-marks, and eyes filled with hopeless misery. A minute before she had been on the pinnacle of hope, looking out over the promised land as an equal of the whites; now she was cast down in the slough of despair, once more a despised outcast. To treble her misery she had nothing to say in her own defence, could raise no indignation to bolster her courage.

Bud lashed his anger to greater strength.

‘A black boong. Pinching my grog for a dirty black boong!’ He aimed a kick at the prostrate form and Rosie and others grabbed him and pulled him back.

‘Leave her alone now. That won’t do you any good,’ said Rosie.

He turned to the onlookers, his eyes filled with tears and his mouth contorted grotesquely. ‘Look what she’s done to me. I pick her up from the gutter an’ the first thing she does is pinch grog for the blacks.’ Between sobs he went on: ‘They were right when they said you can’t raise a half-caste, they’ll allus slip back to the blacks. Ooh.’

‘Take him outside, and all of you go too,’ Rosie ordered. ‘We don’t want to stop in here.’

She turned to Mary, her eyes cold and voice contemptuous. ‘Well, you might as well get up, or are you going to stop there?’

Mary climbed slowly to her feet and stood with body slumped and head bowed. ‘My girl friend is very sick,’ she muttered. ‘What could I do?’ She looked up at Rosie, a plea in her eyes.

‘You made your choice,’ said Rosie, her lips set sternly. ‘You wanted to be with the whites—to get away from the blacks. You can’t have it both ways. I don’t know what chance you’ve still got. But it’s still the same choice—the whites or the blacks.’ She looked meaningly at the cot. ‘What d’you want for her—the whites or the blacks?’ With this last shot, Rosie followed the others out.

Mary slumped on the bed and sat, chin in hand, staring at the cot. Was Polly to grow up a white woman—or a white gin?

Oh, Polly, what had she done? Wrecked all their hopes for the future in one short minute?

Rosie’s words brought back her vague memories of her mother’s death—that terrible night of agony in the rain, her brain numbed with fear and her body numbed with the cold and wet. As a climax to this night of terror she could remember her mother’s fierce exhortations, even—aided by the message she had been given later—even the words her mother had desperately tried to burn into her mind. Leave the blacks and cling to the whites. Her mother, dying because of the whites, trying with the last of her strength to save her daughter from a similar fate.

Now, just as the goal was achieved, by one stupid act everything was jeopardized, not only for herself but for little Polly; little Polly, lying there so pink and beautiful. Just then Polly turned over and smiled vaguely in her sleep. Mary groaned and buried her head in her hands. The little mite was smiling her trust that she would be sheltered and guarded. Oh, how could she have failed her?

Into the depths of her misery a thought suddenly pierced like a faint ray of light. Now she was married to a white man. According to what people had told her, that made her the equal of the whites. But—and the ray of hope flickered wildly—what was Polly’s position? She must still be dependent on Bud.

But Rosie had spoken as though she still had a choice. If Rosie was open to influence, so would Bud be when he was sober. Her head came up and her fists clenched. Maybe she could still fight her way back. She still had her body to subdue Bud. She must choose, Rosie had said, between the whites and the blacks—but she had already chosen, she had renounced the blacks. All she had to do was to convince the whites.

Mary’s body tensed as she thought how she would fight for herself and Polly. Suddenly she winced as if she had been struck. Meg’s bottle was gone, and now she wouldn’t even be able to go down the road to tell her. She couldn’t start a struggle to convince people she was finished with the blacks by going out to meet one.

She thought of Meg waiting, and of the look on her face when she had so hesitatingly asked for the bottle—avid, yet wistful, trying to conceal her eagerness, but betraying it by the light in her eyes. Meg had nothing, no joy in the present or hope for the future, only the promise of a bottle of drink to help her to forget for a time, and let her feel she was celebrating her friend’s success.

Mary could see her squatting in the long grass at the side of the road, waiting for her. As the day wore on, she would still be there in the smothering heat, the dust and the flies, waiting for the friend who might come any minute. Then, in the dusk, walking slowly up the road, with many a glance back in case she had been kept late. A slow trudge from the last friend, a friend who had failed her, to life with that vicious Jimmy, a life of misery under the shadow of leprosy.

Polly stirred in the cot and Mary’s heart turned over. Whatever happened she must fight for Polly. Nothing must be allowed to stand in her way; not even poor Meg, waiting down the road.

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

This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2010.

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