Sydney harbour, 1870 - Wikipedia commons
Sydney, Australia, 1840
Twirling her parasol, Harriet Brady crossed the dusty street, trying not to look over to her left where the town came to an end. Her face reddened but it had nothing to do with the scorching sun. Against her will, she remembered the first time that she had glanced in that direction, at the ramshackle dwellings. Why couldn’t Mama send one of the shop staff to Mrs Haltwhistle’s to pick up the embroidery, for heaven’s sake! Every Thursday, Harriet had to walk the length of Sydney on this particular errand. Of course, Mama had no reason to alter the routine since Harriet would rather die than explain her confused emotions. Yet she had to admit to feeling quite the lady strolling down the street. It was just this particular end of town that sent uncontrollable shivers through her delicate frame.
Mrs Haltwhistle ran a busy sweatshop, turning out embroidered table-cloths, handkerchiefs and antimacassars which Mama sold at a tidy profit from her shop, though of course she didn’t call it that, she preferred the much grander name of emporium – Brady’s Emporium. ‘One day, my dear,’ she told Harriet often, ‘I will have a string of emporia all over Australia!’
Standing in the shade of the balcony above, Harriet furled her parasol and tugged on the bell-pull to the right of the front door, next to the wooden plaque engraved with MRS EMILY HALTWHISTLE, SEAMSTRESS.
A metal bell clanged inside and in a moment Daisy the maid, wearing a dark grey shift, answered the door.
Daisy curtseyed and said, ‘Mrs Haltwhistle is expecting you, Miss Brady.’ Every week, that was all that she ever said.
At each visit Harriet deliberately had to drag her eyes away from Daisy’s pockmarked cheeks and her lazy left eye. Poor mite, she thought, and followed Daisy along the cool dark passage, her shoes clattering on the wooden boards; Daisy made no sound, as she was bare-foot.
The building was two-storey, with a balcony running all round the second floor and this was where Mrs Haltwhistle welcomed Harriet. The small wicker table was set for two, the porcelain plates and cups glinting in the shade of the overhanging roof. A plate of sponge cakes was in the middle, beside a silver teapot.
Those cakes were scrumptious but after tasting one at their first meeting, Harriet had refrained at each subsequent visit because she felt sure her bodice had become far too tight as a result. Indeed, she feared that her clothes must shrink in the wash. It was just too awful. Mama couldn’t afford to buy new garments as she sank all her earnings into more merchandise.
Mrs Haltwhistle was a stout woman, fashionably wearing a voluminous dress, jacket bodice and leg-of-mutton sleeves, and quite filled the wicker armchair. ‘So nice to see you again, my dear,’ she said, gesturing at the empty chair beside her. Washed-out blue eyes hid behind spectacles. ‘Please sit down and partake of tea with me, why don’t you?’ Her odd phrasing never changed, either.
This was so tedious, Harriet thought. ‘Thank you.’ She smiled. ‘You are too kind.’
The chair creaked as Mrs Haltwhistle leaned forward to help herself to another sponge cake. ‘You look the picture of health,’ she said, which was a surprising departure for her.
‘I do?’ Harriet daintily lowered her cup. ‘I must admit that I feel just fine.’
Fingering her spectacles, Mrs Haltwhistle persisted, ‘The heat isn’t bothering you, then?’
‘No, of course not, Mrs Haltwhistle.’ Harriet smiled. ‘After all, I am quite acclimated. I have been here four years.’
Nodding, Mrs Haltwhistle glanced over the balcony baluster. ‘So you have.’
Despite herself, Harriet followed her hostess’s gaze.
Sprawling on the edge of town stood thirty or so dwellings made from discarded wood and brick. On a really hot day, if the wind was in the wrong direction, the open sewerage sent a noisome stink into the town. Amidst this squalor sat and lazed around black women and men. A few men were stumbling around, hands clutching rum bottles to their chests. Many of the women shamelessly bared their breasts or brazenly suckled their infants. All of them here tended to wear hand-me-down English clothes that didn’t suit them.
According to Johnny-can-do, their brethren in the outback only wore pigments of paint or scar-tissue and no clothing, information which sent Harriet’s pulse fluttering.
They were not the popular image of a noble savage, Harriet had thought on first encountering an aborigine when she landed here with her mother in 1826. Yet, she had since revised her opinion and indeed she considered that many of them were handsome, some ruggedly so. Several, she found, were more intelligent than the convict settlers who frequented Mama’s shop. That was where she had first met Johnny-can-do.
Harriet’s heart trembled now and unwelcome shame washed over her. She felt faint. She almost toppled her teacup as she awkwardly set it down in the saucer. She lifted a hand to her forehead. ‘I am so sorry,’ she whispered, ‘perhaps the heat is affecting me, after all.’
Mrs Haltwhistle’s small eyes peered over her pince-nez. ‘It isn’t the heat, my dear...’
‘A long way back in time,’ Johnny-can-do had said some weeks ago, ‘all the spirits of the earth except one were asleep. The great Father of All Spirits was awake. You always have someone to keep an eye out, don’t you?’ He smiled, exhibiting big white teeth. He was proud of his mastery of English, learned painstakingly in Miss Bellow’s school.
Harriet was enraptured by this strange creature who resembled a young man yet was something else entirely, something quite magical. She wasn’t in the least embarrassed by his bare chest which glistened with sweat. Now, after four years here, she wasn’t even bothered by seeing half-naked aborigine women. Indeed, it seemed quite natural.
They were sitting cross-legged near the little creek that ran past the town and into the harbour. Mama was busy, as usual, in her emporium.
‘What did the Father of All Spirits do?’ Harriet asked.
‘He gently woke the Sun Mother and as she opened her eyes a warm ray of light spread out over the sleeping earth. The Father told her he had work for her. She was to go down to the Earth and wake up the sleeping spirits and give them solid form.’
Harriet had always loved fairy tales and this sounded like one too. ‘He seems to be a typical man, bossing the woman around,’ she observed.
‘That is the natural way of things, Harriet,’ Johnny said.
‘I wouldn’t let you order me about,’ she vowed.
‘What, not just a little bit?’ he wheedled playfully.
‘Well, perhaps just a little, if I liked it.’ She leaned back, her elbows supporting her on the grass. A thought struck her. ‘There aren’t any snakes here, are there?’
Johnny shrugged and wrinkled his flat nose. ‘Could be. I caught one here last week.’
Harriet sidled closer to him. ‘You caught a snake?’
‘My family, it has to eat.’
Harriet pulled a face but didn’t move away. He seemed fearless and brave. She shook her head, golden tresses flying free over her shoulders, and dismissed her fanciful thoughts. ‘You were talking about the Sun Mother. She was sent down to the Earth.’
‘Before I was interrupted,’ he added.
She pulled a face at him then settled down to listen, determined not to ask any more questions as she didn’t want to break the thread Johnny was spinning.
Johnny gestured with both hands, as if encompassing the sky and their surroundings. ‘The Sun Mother glided down and wherever she walked plants grew in her wake and after all her travels she rested in a field, pleased with herself. But there was no rest for her, it seems, as the Father told her to go into the caves and wake the spirits there. She did as he bid and insects fled from the caves to populate the earth, many mingling with her flowers in the field. She told all her creatures to enjoy the wealth of the earth and to live peacefully with one another. Satisfied, she rose into the sky and became the sun.
‘When the Sun Mother departed in the west, the living creatures were afraid, fearing that the end of time had come, but eventually she appeared from the east and they got used to the regularity of her coming and going. The creatures lived together peacefully until, sadly, envy crept into their hearts and they began to argue.
‘Distressed, the Sun Mother came down again to make the peace. Then she gave each creature the power to change their form to whatever they liked. This was not a good decision; she was not pleased. Rats changed into bats and there were giant lizards and fish with blue tongues and feet. And hares that carried their young in pouches and hopped great distances - you call them kangaroo.) The oddest creature had the bill of a duck, teeth for chewing and a tail like a beaver’s.’
‘That’s the platypus!’ she exclaimed, unable to resist interrupting.
‘Yes, it is.’
‘Sorry, go on...’
‘I will,’ he said mock-sternly. ‘The Sun Mother decided she must create new creatures and gave birth to two children, the Morning Star and the Moon, who gave birth in turn to two children who were sent to Earth.
‘They became our ancestors,’ Johnny said, smiling. ‘The Sun Mother made us superior to the animals because we have a part of her mind and will never want to change our shape.’
Changing shape - that was the problem, Harriet now knew as she left Mrs Haltwhistle’s in a daze. Under her arm was a brown paper bundle of embroidered material.
My shape is changing, she told herself again.
Mrs Haltwhistle had tried to be delicate about it.
While Johnny-can-do talked of his people’s creation myths, they had lain together and procreation had occurred.
As she felt her tight waistline she knew it was no myth.
I am ruined, she thought, and carried the parcel down into the shantytown where Johnny-can-do lived.
This must be her life now because she would not consider Mrs Haltwhistle’s option: ‘I know someone who can get rid of the little blighter for you.’
God help me, Harriet thought, but my child will not live in this godforsaken shanty town! But it will live.
Her heart tumbled as she saw Johnny-can-do. He had seen her too and he waved, his face lighting up with a huge grin.
Harriet walked up to him and grabbed his hand. ‘Come with me, Johnny,’ she urged. ‘We’re leaving. Going inland. I’m setting up my own shop and we will live as man and wife.’
Previously published in The New Coastal Press, 2010.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.
Note: The original didn’t begin with the place and date explained, as that becomes evident in the story’s telling, but I thought it was appropriate here!
If you liked this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat, which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’. He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.