By Penny Hueston
CORY TAYLOR, WHO passed away in July, was a joy to work with. Over the years I was her editor at Text, we became close friends. This extract in Griffith Review, a literary magazine much admired by Cory, is from The White Experiment, the third novel she was working on after her extraordinary Me and Mr Booker (Text, 2012) and My Beautiful Enemy (Text, 2013).
When she knew she did not have much longer to live, she rang to tell me she wouldn’t be able to finish this novel. We talked at length about her prognosis and her thoughts and feelings about death and dying. She was always such a wonderful person to talk to – witty, intelligent and original. Before I hung up, I suggested she write down some of the things she had been saying to me. The next day, I received an email to the effect that of course she should be writing – she was, after all, a writer! Over the next few weeks, in an extraordinary burst of creativity, Cory wrote Dying, A Memoir (Text, 2016), a book we would not have if she hadn’t thought that, in abandoning The White Experiment, she was abandoning writing altogether. Books come to us in remarkable ways, and this fragment from her unfinished novel shows what a remarkable writer Cory was.
This is what Cory wrote to me about her novel:
I’ve called it The White Experiment, for reasons that become clear early on in the story. Specifically it refers to the British navy-trained divers who were sent to Broome in 1912 to compete with Japanese divers and prove that white men were up to the task of diving for pearl shell. I’ve had a stab at writing a blurb, below, with the obvious reservation that I’m only a short way into the book so anything can change and probably will!
Just before the outbreak of World War I, Ernest Overton arrives in Broome, Western Australia, to take over the government hospital following the abrupt resignation of his predecessor Doctor Bleakley. At the same time Alice Kato, granddaughter of a local laundress and boarding house proprietor, languishes in the Japanese hospital awaiting removal to a mental asylum in Perth after an unprovoked attack on Bleakley’s wife. If Ernest can only persuade Alice to speak, he might uncover the cause of her unrelenting rage, and the connection between her case and that of the white navy diver, missing somewhere in the Darnley Deeps. In a town riven by racial division, two people struggle to make a connection that will change their lives forever, and help them to prevail through the great tragedy that is about to descend upon their world.
You put together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed.
I’M TRYING MY best to remember hitting Mrs Bleakley on the head, but the truth is I don’t remember a thing. Everything else that happened that day I can see very clearly, both before I hit her and afterwards, but the actual incident itself is missing from my recollection as though it never took place.
First there are the flowers strewn all over the lawn in the morning, frangipanis from the tree outside the kitchen – the kind where the petals are stained pink at the tips like they’re dipped in blood. I gather some in my skirt and take them inside to Mary, who is Mrs Bleakley’s cook. She likes to stick her flat nose into their yellow centres and inhale their perfume. Because of Mary a bowl of frangipanis sits in the middle of the kitchen table, fresh every morning, floating in water. They’re a blessing from God, says Mary, who doesn’t believe in a church but prays at the altar of everything that lives and breathes: birds, insects, dogs and cats, even flowers and trees. When she is out in the garden she will converse with trees the way you or I would talk to a friend or an intimate, and I fancy this is how she fends off the loneliness that lies at the heart of every life.
Mary is cooking breakfast when I come in, scrambling fresh eggs from the hens and adding cheese the way Mrs Bleakley has taught her to do. Four years she has been cook in the doctor’s house, ever since the Bleakleys found her in Perth and persuaded her to come with them to Broome. According to Mary’s account, it was either take up the Bleakleys’ kind offer or wind up in the poor house. Being a widow with no living children she was, as she puts it, ‘at the mercy of cruel fate, which is only how all women are who are not attached to men’. Being still young – nineteen last April – I used not to pay much attention to Mary’s views on life, but now I wish I’d listened. It might have prepared me for the suffering to which I’m presently subject. It might have equipped me to endure.
It is just as Mother Louis said it would be when she expelled me from the convent school for defiance. ‘You’ll come to a sorry end Alice Kato,’ was how she put it. ‘You’ll die and go straight to hell.’
At servants’ breakfast we are all gathered around the table sharing slices of day-old bread with butter and marmalade and a pot of sugary tea. There is Billy the gardener; Daniel, the boy who does Dr Bleakley’s shoes; Jo, who used to be a diver’s tender and is now a houseboy; Annie, who does the washing and ironing for Mrs Bleakley; Mary the cook; and lastly me, the nursemaid, responsible for the baby. I’ve only just left the baby alone with the doctor so he can see what’s the matter with him. He’s been fretting all night and isn’t feeding properly at the breast, so I thought it best to get the doctor’s opinion as soon as he awoke.
Jo wants to know if I’ve had any sleep at all. ‘You look done in,’ he says, taking a fatherly interest. Jo understands my circumstances better than most, because my grandmother has made them known to him and he feels he must look out for me – for her sake, if not for mine. Not that my circumstances are a secret from anyone, it seems. Either Jo has a big mouth or Mrs Bleakley does, because there is no lack of consideration for me among my fellow house servants and they all treat me as if I were in mourning for a loved one, which in effect I am, twice over.
Mary pushes a glass of fresh milk in my direction and tells me to drink, while Annie deposits an extra slice of bread on my plate. ‘You have to keep your strength up,’ she says, although the very same could be said of her. By the time Annie was my age she’d already had three children, and now she has seven – all of them taller than she is. It is as if they grow at her expense, for she appears to have shrunk even in the two months that I’ve known her, so that now she’s as thin as a beanpole.
The baby, when I see him again, is red in the face and screaming, as is often the case when Mrs Bleakley holds him. It is the way she does it: too loose, as if he is a parcel containing explosives; or else too tight, as if she’d like to smother him.
‘Apparently there’s nothing wrong with him,’ she says. ‘But I can’t make him settle.’
‘Would you like me to give him his bath?’ I say.
‘If it will make him stop this awful wailing,’ she says.
She holds the child out to me with a pleading look on her sallow face, then comes after me as I take him to the bathroom at the back of the house and prepare his bathwater. I know she doesn’t trust me, worries that at any moment I will vanish with the child into the backstreets of Japtown and never be seen again. If only that were possible.
The baby calms down as soon as he’s in the bath. At ten weeks old, he already has his likes and dislikes: a preference for me over Mrs Bleakley, a partiality to Mary’s singing voice over all others, a fascination with the shells that hang over the back stairs and chime together in the wind. He responds to water the way a fish does when it’s handed back to the sea. He wriggles and flails his limbs about in a swimming motion. He waits for me to lean over him and croon the way I always do, calling him by the name I’ve given him, which is Marcus, after his father, although Mrs Bleakley prefers me to call him Gilbert, the name she and her husband have given him. At the sound of my voice, the baby focuses his dove-grey eyes on mine and stares so steadily it is like a beam of light aimed directly upon my soul. You’re there, he seems to be thinking, and I’m here. And then his face is flooded with delight, like some joke has just this instant made sense to him.
After he is dried and powdered and dressed in clean clothes I feed him. Mrs Bleakley likes to watch me do that too, although I cannot imagine it gives her any pleasure. She has buried two babies in the past four years, both of them, according to Mary, born before they were ready, too tiny and unformed to survive. If it were me, I would not like to be reminded of my losses by the sight of another woman feeding a child as stout as Marcus. I think it is perhaps a part of her madness to appraise me in the act of nursing, for she comes close and stares at my bare breast and strokes the baby’s blonde head as he suckles. This is the one habit I have grown to hate the most, since it distracts both him and me from our most intimate communication, robs us, as it were, of our privacy – and I have no doubt this is exactly what Mrs Bleakley intends.
As soon as he is asleep she takes him from me and disappears to her husband’s study to show off how cleverly she has mothered the baby and calmed him down, made him perfect again. For that is what they both want from their experiment, evidence that the baby they intend to claim as their own is a perfect specimen. Not only is his hair coloured straw blonde like his father’s, but his skin is as pale and smooth as freshly whipped cream. There is apparently nothing in him of me, or of my grandmother, except perhaps for the shape of his eyes, which are set wide and taper away at the ends like they are drawn on with a fine-tipped brush. Otherwise he is the image of his father, as they prayed to God he would be, an Englishman to all appearances – a kind of scientific marvel. ‘Breeding out the colour’ is what they talked about before he was born, calculating the odds of a throwback by dividing up his ancestry into Asiatic and white. Dr Bleakley has even written a scientific paper about him that he tells me he intends to publish on his return to London. He has shown me how, in the paper, I am referred to as A, the baby’s father as B, and the baby himself as AB, so that we might maintain our anonymity. Although I’m not sure I want my anonymity maintained, for I’m not certain whose purposes it serves. Surely not the baby’s, who in years to come might well suspect that the Bleakleys have played some trick on him.
Poor Dr Bleakley. Even now I feel only pity for him. To be motivated by science into performing acts of such exquisite cruelty can surely never result in a state of true happiness. And yet, how else to cure his wife of her malaise? How else to assuage her grief at having no children of her own, except by stealing a child from someone else? For Mrs Bleakley I feel no pity at all. She is a spoilt, selfish woman, and I’m certain that if I saw her again today I would leap on her and try to scratch her eyes out from pure hatred, for I am convinced she is a monster, a creature with a hollow space where there should be a heart.
I don’t know when I finally decide to act against Mrs Bleakley, but perhaps it is at the very same moment when I pick up the stool to strike her. She has brought the sleeping baby back to the nursery. She has placed him down in his cot a little roughly. She has leaned over to touch his shock of blonde hair, calling him her sweet angel and her dear little man. When she turns to leave the room I’m in the doorway with the stool in my hand, and the next thing I remember Dr Bleakley is leaning over her and calling out her name.
There is blood on the floor around Mrs Bleakley’s head. There is blood on Dr Bleakley’s hands. When he struggles with me he stains my white skirt and blouse with blood. I haven’t seen that much blood since my mother haemorrhaged up half her lungs in her hospital bed and died right before my eyes – or so it seemed to me. Perhaps it was a week later she died, completely alone, without me or my grandmother there to hold her. So that is another thing I don’t remember, another thing that is missing from my memory as if it never happened.
And yet I know my mother is dead because I haven’t seen her since I was five years old, just as I know I hit Mrs Bleakley over the head because she came into the courthouse as large as life and showed everyone where her husband sewed up the gash with sixteen stitches. Proof enough, according to the magistrate, Mr Hardmann, that I tried to kill her. Which I don’t deny. I certainly wanted her dead. I’m only sorry I didn’t hit her harder.
YESTERDAY WAS MY twenty-sixth birthday. I have made the mistake of telling Mr Hardmann, with the result that a party has been hastily organised for tomorrow evening with a dozen of Broome’s finest invited.
‘It’s a perfect chance for you to be introduced into society,’ says Mr Hardmann, ‘and for society to be introduced to you.’
‘I’m not very good at parties,’ I say. ‘I envy people who are.’
‘Nonsense,’ he says, slapping me so hard on the shoulder I almost somersault into the mud below. He is not a big man but, unlike me, he has the muscular build of a keen sportsman, and likes to show off his strength at every opportunity.
We are down on the jetty inspecting the Hardmann lugging fleet. Between them, Alfred and his brother Thomas own fifty-eight luggers, along with two schooners for supplying and servicing the crews once they put out to sea and for collecting the mother of pearl as it is harvested. In a few days time, as soon as I’m settled, I’m to take up the position of medical officer at the government hospital at Broome, the board of which Mr Alfred Hardmann chairs. As luck would have it, my arrival in the Nor’West has coincided with the end of the lay-up so that I am in time to see the whole pearling fleet moored along the foreshore, undergoing repairs and refits in preparation for the season to come.
‘It’s as if an invading army had just landed,’ I say, taking in the spectacle.
‘More of a leaderless rabble,’ says Alfred. ‘Some three and a half thousand men in all.’
For almost a week now, since the morning I stepped so unsteadily off the fortnightly steamer from Perth, one or other of the Hardmann brothers has been showing me around the town, signing me up for all the various clubs and societies, supervising the refurbishment, on my behalf, of the doctor’s quarters, and generally seeing to my wellbeing and comfort.
‘It has been suggested,’ says Alfred, ‘that during the lay-up a man can walk the entire length of this beach for over a mile and never get his feet wet. He would simply need to step from one deck to the next.’
The boats are indeed stacked so closely together their hulls appear to form a single entity, stretching away in both directions as far as the eye can see. Their masts and rigging resemble some dense forest denuded of leaves, and all around them swarms an ant army: labourers of every conceivable colour – carpenters, painters, sailmakers and coolies – their slight but supple bodies sweating and straining under the merciless sun.
I’m not used to the heat as yet. It hits one like a sandbag to the head the minute one steps out into it, and the glare is just as punishing. Anyone seeing the coastline at Roebuck Bay for the first time cannot help but imagine they have crossed the border at the edge of the familiar universe and entered a new, harsher solar system. The colours are the first sign that something is amiss: the boulders and hillocks all shades of red; the sea a luminous green as if electrified; the sky above so intensely blue one fears to look at it for too long in case the brain empties and takes on the hue as its dominant idea, displacing all competing thought.
‘Follow me,’ says Alfred, heading down the jetty towards the jumble of shanties that cling so precariously to the foreshore. From the lines of washing put out to dry and the smell of cooking and the sight of men defecating in among the mangroves, I guess that the shanties are home to some proportion of the town’s population, the ones who cannot or will not pay to live in more civilised and sanitary accommodation.
This is another thing I am not yet used to, the sight of so many impoverished Asiatics concentrated in one place, as if this were, for all intents and purposes, some slum in Asia, cut off in every way from the rest of the nation. I have of course read something about the racial make-up of the town, as the southern press has been so exercised by the topic for so many months, but it nevertheless shocks one to see the actuality, to witness it in the flesh, so to speak. It now becomes obvious to me how the Hardmanns and their friends have become so inordinately wealthy on the back of the pearl industry. It is thanks to the thousands of coloureds who make up their labour force, many of them living no better than slaves, and this in a nation that prides itself on its egalitarian principles and holds up racial purity as a supreme social virtue.
Mr Hardmann leads me into a narrow alleyway of tin huts and shelters where the smell takes on all the attributes of a living organism, insinuating itself up into the nostrils and down the throat, threatening to strangle the airways. Our progress is observed by the denizens of this neighbourhood, many of whom greet Alfred by name while staring impassively at me. They are mostly young men, I note, some of them mere boys and all of them patently undernourished. I am told that beri-beri and dengue fever are their greatest scourges, as well as malaria, opium addiction, divers’ paralysis and all variety of sexually transmitted diseases. Also that the Japanese hospital has had cause in the past to report one or two cases of leprosy, although the telltale signs of this affliction are mercifully absent from the myriad faces I see peering out at me from the shadows. I grin and wave frequently in their direction, hoping to appear as friendly and unafraid as my guide, for whom I have a newfound respect. He walks among these people without any sign of unease, whereas I am overwhelmed with anxiety to be away from them and back in the white quarter of town, with its wide boulevards and shady gardens and its unfouled, breathable air.
Our journey ends at the entrance to a shelling shed, where we pass underneath a string of some species of fish hung out to dry, its putrid stench far worse than any of the alleyway smells we’ve just left behind us.
‘Shell meat,’ Hardmann informs me. ‘A Chinese delicacy.’
I flee inside, seeking relief from the foulness and the heat, and discover that the baking tin roof overhead only acts like an oven, and that the darkness into which I am plunged is so uniformly opaque it is impossible at first for the eyes to adjust. As the shadows resolve into recognisable forms, I find we are standing over a small pile of pearl shell, still damp and smelling pungently of the sea.
‘My Englishmen dived Roebuck Deep this morning,’ says my guide. ‘At thirty-five fathoms they still hadn’t sighted the bottom, so they were limited to what they could pick off the side of the cliff.’
Hardmann picks up a fragment of shell the size of a small dinner plate and hands it to me.
‘For you,’ he says. ‘This is the reason we all keep coming back to this hellish place.’
Alfred makes no secret of his wish to spend as little time in Broome as he can manage. I am informed that, following her second hurricane, Mrs Hardmann deserted her husband for Perth, setting up house there with their four children. Since then Mr Hardmann has been required to do business on his own and return home to Perth only occasionally, an inconvenience about which he frequently complains.
Using his cane, Alfred flips over another large fragment of shell so that I can see its brilliant lining.
‘At the height of last season, even damaged shell like this was fetching £280 a ton in London,’ he says.
I weigh the piece of shell in my hand and peer at its lustrous inner layer, trying to imagine how much a ton of it might stretch when divvied up into cigarette holders and lighters and intricate inlaid tea tables. In the dark it is impossible to tell why the global appetite for pearl shell is so insatiable, although once we are outside again and standing in the sun, the appeal of its jewel-like qualities becomes all too obvious. Held up to the light, the lustre shimmers and splits into a dozen variations on pink and silvery blue and luminescent green – somewhat like the patterns one sees on the surface of fine silk, only even more vibrant and bright.
‘We’ll have to get you a suit made with your own mother-of-pearl buttons,’ says Alfred, surveying my poor attempt at tropical attire. Like all the white men of substance in Broome, Alfred dresses in the uniform of the pearl master: a freshly starched white jacket and trousers, with blancoed suede shoes on his feet and a white solar topi on his head. His cane is inlaid with finest pearl shell and his jacket buttons appear to be made from large, milky white pearls, no doubt worth far more than the suits they embellish. I have known and lived with the man for almost a week now and have never seen him appear in public in anything other than this immaculate outfit.
‘One must look the part,’ he tells me.
‘I’m not sure I can afford to,’ I protest, ‘on a medical officer’s pay.’
‘It is not a choice,’ says Alfred. ‘It’s a duty.’
And this is the way he turns his official face on me all of a sudden, adopting a gruff and pompous tone, as if he were a headmaster and me a boy of eight, just starting out at prep school and still hazy about the rules. He reminds me too much of my father, who liked to address me, when he spoke to me at all, in the same schoolmasterly way, until I would writhe with discomfort and impatience and be rewarded for my inattention with a clip over the ear. He even looks like my father, with his trim moustache and his milky fish eyes. It seems I have escaped one oppressively stuffy martinet only to encounter another just like him on the other side of the continent.
Perhaps I should never have come. Perhaps my father was right to warn me against such a bold and reckless move. He would naturally have preferred me to stay close by and stick to my plan of furthering my promising medical career in Melbourne. Instead of which I’ve disappointed him, defied him in fact, really for no other reason than to demonstrate my independent spirit. It serves me right if there are unsettling moments, usually around three in the morning, when I lie sleepless on my sweat-soaked bed, watching the geckoes feast on the ceiling’s bounteous swarm of bugs, and wondering if I haven’t made the most terrible mistake.
MY BIRTHDAY PARTY is hardly reassuring. I find I am among men who have no other motive in life but to make as much money as possible, by whatever means, in the shortest possible period of time, after which they plan to retire to Perth or to the east coast to live off their earnings in regal style. I have never encountered a breed like them: hard-drinking gamblers all, and yet full of pious notions about opening up the Nor’West for civilisation’s inevitable march. The topic that exercises them most vigorously at the moment is the desire of the new federal government to push through with ill-conceived policies that have the potential to ruin them all overnight if they were ever to be successfully implemented.
‘They have no notion of conditions up here,’ a pink-faced Mr Yarwood informs me. A pearl master with some thirty years’ experience in the industry, Mr Yarwood is a most vocal opponent of what is commonly referred to in Broome as ‘the white experiment’. This is, according to the general consensus, a murderous government-backed scheme whereby a dozen navy trained divers have been sent out from England to compete with the Japanese divers who currently monopolise the trade.
‘Doomed from the start,’ says Yarwood. ‘The whole lot of them. All fine men mind you, and highly capable I’m sure at what they know. But pearl diving is an altogether different game from salvage, as they’ve all discovered by now. Even the ones who refuse to admit as much.’
Mr Yarwood and I are in Alfred’s billiard room, drinking gin while we wait for dinner to be served. I watch my companion spread his enormous thighs and lean down on his cue to line up a shot. For a large man he is surprisingly nimble, almost dainty in his movements.
‘Out of the original twelve, two are dead,’ he tells me, ‘three are crippled, three have broken their contracts by mutual agreement with their employers and left town, and the rest are determined to dive one last season, just in order to prove a point.’
‘How does that compare with the death rate among the Japanese?’ I ask, shocked that in little more than a year the ranks of the navy divers have been so savagely depleted.
‘Poorly,’ says Mr Yarwood. ‘Although that is not the point.’
After a series of impeccably weighted shots, he pauses to gulp down his gin and yell through the doorway for a refill.
‘The point is that for all their efforts the navy men have failed to bring up sufficient shell to cover the cost of taking them on. Jimmy here will tell you, won’t you Jimmy?’
Alfred’s houseboy has joined us, bringing a fresh bottle of gin and an invitation to be seated for dinner. ‘Tell you what?’ he says, in his vaguely accusative way. He is as unlike a servant as it is possible to be, perhaps because Alfred treats him more like a trusted confidant and friend.
‘What’s the secret of pearl diving?’ says Mr Yarwood.
He helps himself to another tumbler of gin and tops mine up while he waits for Jimmy to reply.
‘Foolishness,’ says the houseboy, directing one of his toothy smiles at his interrogator.
‘Thus speaks the voice of experience,’ says Mr Yarwood, watching Jimmy leave the room. The houseboy walks with a pronounced limp. Whenever I have asked about it he has fobbed me off with a vague reply.
‘Alfred’s best diver at one time,’ says Mr Yarwood. ‘Even has shares in some of his boats. And then one day he comes up after an hour or so below and collapses in his suit, blood pouring out of his ears, no feeling below the waist. A miracle he’s alive. But the Japanese are tough you see. I’ve seen a Japanese diver drop dead on deck and another one step straight into his countryman’s suit to carry on diving.’
‘And that’s why they’re better than the Englishmen? Because they’re unfeeling?’
‘They’re better than the Englishmen because they’re cheap,’ says Mr Yarwood.
Grinning broadly, his cheeks aflame, he downs his gin and leads me out onto the north verandah where the rest of the party is gathered. There are ten men and two women in the group, all dressed up in their finery for the occasion: the women in elegant evening dress, the men in spotless white suits – the supply of which must be endless, given how many changes are required on account of the heat. I am told that the wealthiest pearl masters send their outfits to Singapore to be laundered and returned to them, and that it is in Singapore where the suits are most commonly tailored, although there are a few Chinese in town who will do a passable job for a reasonable fee. Until I can order some formal wear of my own I must appear in a borrowed suit courtesy of Thomas Hardmann, the taller and broader of the two -brothers. He waves at me now and indicates where I’m to sit.
‘As the new man in town,’ he says, ‘we’ve placed you between the two ladies.’
The two women turn up at my side. Bejewelled and distinctly matronly, they escort me as you would a prisoner: one on each arm, the two of them holding on tight, as if I can’t be trusted not to make off with a grab bag of gleaming silverware and sparkling crystal. If it weren’t for the lattice screens that shade the verandah and the chirp of tropical insects in the garden down below, we might be in Toorak, in the dining room of my father’s house, as it seems Mr Hardmann and my father share the same lust for luxury appurtenances and needless acquisitions.
‘My name is Ernest Overton,’ I announce to my neighbours. ‘I’m the new doctor.’
‘We know who you are,’ the women reply as one. ‘We know everything about you. There are no secrets in this town.’
‘That sounds like a warning,’ I say.
They both laugh heartily and take their allotted seats, settling themselves down as if they are counting on an entertaining evening.
I’M SUBJECTED THEREAFTER to a prolonged interrogation by my new friends, on the subject of my career thus far and my motives for leaving Melbourne.
‘A girl perhaps?’ asks Mrs Yarwood, a woman as skinny and pallid as her husband is plump and pink. ‘An ill-advised romance? I’ll bet you’re the type who leaves behind a trail of broken hearts wherever you go.’
‘There is no girl,’ I say, although that is not strictly true.
‘Then we shall have to work our magic and conjure one up for you,’ says Mrs Cartwright, married to Frederick Cartwright who acts as local agent for a London shell buyer.
‘Slim pickings up here I’m afraid,’ says Thomas Hardmann, flushed with drink. ‘Even the old whores down in Japtown can pick and choose.’
‘Don’t be so vulgar Tom,’ says Mrs Cartwright, glancing playfully in Thomas’s direction. She pats my sleeve with her fleshy fingers and leans in towards me to speak.
‘Don’t take any notice of Thomas Hardmann,’ she says in a theatrical whisper. ‘He’s a dissolute, degenerate reprobate, aren’t you Tom. Absolutely beyond redemption.’
Thomas gazes at Mrs Cartwright with an expression of naked longing. ‘I’m waiting for a good woman to take me in hand,’ he says, a remark that engenders a momentary hush around the table, broken only by the sound of knives and forks scraping against fine china.
‘And what did your mother think about you moving so far away from home?’ says Mrs Yarwood, attempting to restore the flow of conversation after its temporary lull.
‘My mother is dead,’ I say. ‘She died when I was thirteen. I was brought up by my father.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ says Mrs Yarwood.
‘It was a long time ago.’
I always say the same thing about my mother’s death, that it was a long time ago, as if the intervening years should have somehow diminished my grief or moderated my anguish at this singular loss, when in reality they have done neither.
‘And your father. What did he think?’
‘My father told me I was throwing my life away,’ I say. ‘Which I probably am.’
‘Oh surely not,’ says Mrs Cartwright. ‘What kind of a young man doesn’t yearn for adventure and excitement when he’s just starting out? Surely by throwing one life away you are only opening up the option of pursuing another, altogether different path.’
‘Exactly what I told my father the day I sailed out of Melbourne,’ I say, ‘although I think I failed to convince him.’
‘What does your father do?’ says the man sitting on Mrs Cartwright’s left, a Mr Drummond.
‘He’s a chartered accountant,’ I say.
‘Ah well,’ says Mr Drummond, smiling at me jovially. ‘A life of boundless adventure there no doubt.’
‘He assures me it has its moments,’ I say, and am suddenly filled with a familiar sadness at my utter failure to please my father in any way.
Towards the end of the evening the conversation finally lights upon the topic of my predecessor at the government hospital.
‘Bleakley,’ says Mrs Cartwright. ‘An Oxford man.’
‘Wife from a family with some kind of title,’ says Mr Yarwood. ‘A minor baronetcy or some such.’
‘Or so she claimed,’ says Mrs Yarwood. ‘I was never convinced myself.’
‘Why did they leave?’ I say.
‘Shame I would say,’ says Mr Cartwright. ‘Wouldn’t you Alfred?’
‘That and ill health,’ says Alfred, sucking up some chilled lychees in syrup directly out of his bowl. ‘He was never the same after he did the autopsy on that scabby Manila man who was stabbed at the Star. I think he picked something up.’
‘Good riddance if you ask me,’ says Mrs Yarwood, ‘The business with the nursemaid came as a godsend.’
Alfred suggests, somewhat tetchily, that the subject of the nursemaid might not be a suitable topic for discussion at the dinner table. ‘It is the kind of thing that happens in the lay-up,’ he tells me, ‘when the heat tends to drive the populace a little mad.’
‘More than a little,’ says Mrs Yarwood, ignoring Alfred’s visible displeasure. She helps herself to a bird’s ration of delectables from Jimmy’s silver platter. He is making the rounds of the table yet again, bearing offerings of exotic tropical fruit and imported cheese. Following on his tail is the Malay boy who pours the drinks. So far this evening he’s produced French champagne, wines from Bordeaux, the finest single malt whisky from Scotland, and now Napoleon brandy and a range of exotic liqueurs. ‘The girl fully intended to murder Mrs Bleakley. I saw her in court.’
‘As did everyone else here,’ says Mr Yarwood. He wipes his chin on his napkin and turns to me. ‘For some time back in February,’ he says, ‘Alice Kato’s trial was the town’s chief entertainment. It rivalled the circus.’
‘With Alfred here as presiding magistrate,’ says Mrs Cartwright. ‘Personally I don’t think the girl was mad at all. I think she was provoked by that awful man and took it out on his wife.’
‘He wasn’t that bad,’ says Mr Cartwright, winking at me.
‘Oh Frederick,’ says his wife, provoked in the way her husband intended. ‘Why do you always defend him? He was incompetent.’
‘Incompetent or not, he was a fine horseman,’ says Mr Cartwright, ‘and a good man to have on your side in a game of cricket.’
‘Never mind that he almost killed Nicholas.’
‘A botched appendectomy on our son,’ explains Mr Cartwright.
‘The man was a drunk,’ says Mrs Cartwright. ‘Which is why I started taking the children to Dr Otani, if you remember.’
‘Indeed I do,’ says her husband. ‘Since you never tire of reminding me.’
‘Have you met Dr Otani yet, Dr Overton?’ says Mr Yarwood.
‘Not yet,’ I say. ‘I’m intending to call in and introduce myself.’
‘Get him to show you Alice while you’re about it,’ says Thomas. ‘She’s quite something.’
‘Be quiet Tom,’ growls Alfred.
Thomas raises his glass of brandy in Alfred’s direction. ‘Simply stating the facts,’ he says.
‘See if you can solve the mystery,’ says Mrs Cartwright with her hand on my arm again, this time exerting a firm pressure. I take this as a sign that she is issuing me an instruction rather than making a mere suggestion.
‘What mystery is that?’ I say.
‘The nursemaid refuses to talk,’ says Mrs Cartwright. ‘Even at her trial she remained mute, as if she’d lost the power of speech.’
‘A trick,’ says Mrs Yarwood. ‘Feign madness and the court will sympathise with your plight.’
‘Are you implying my judgment was impaired in some way?’ says Alfred.
‘She’s a very pretty girl,’ says Mrs Yarwood.
‘And a lunatic,’ says Alfred.
‘Where is she now?’ I say, my interest in the case well and truly aroused.
‘Confined in the Japanese hospital,’ says Alfred. ‘Pending removal to an asylum in Perth.’
‘It sets such a bad example, Alfred,’ says Mrs Yarwood.
‘In what way?’ says Alfred, looking drawn and grey all of a sudden, as if he wished the evening over and done with.
‘To the servants. What if they all got it into their heads to attack their employers with items of furniture?’
‘I’m sure the notion has already occurred to most of them at one time or another,’ says Mr Yarwood. He turns to Jimmy who is at the sideboard making preparations to serve coffee. ‘Wouldn’t you say Jimmy?’
Jimmy limps towards the table bearing a dozen golden cups on a tray and a silver pot of steaming coffee. ‘No question,’ he says, pouring a cup of coffee for Mrs Yarwood. ‘After all, we servants are only human. We can only take so much. Something you should remember Mr Hardmann, if you don’t want to be murdered in your bed.’
A ripple of laughter spreads around the table. I notice that even Alfred laughs, although it is by no means clear that the houseboy’s remark was intended as a joke.
SOMETIME AFTER MIDNIGHT the party finally breaks up, and the guests drive away in their various transports. All except for Thomas, who has fallen asleep in the billiard room, sprawled fully clothed on a wicker lounge where Jimmy has supplied him with pillows and a cotton sheet. Alfred helps the houseboy to remove his brother’s shoes, while I stand in the doorway watching. I’m barely able to remain upright myself by now, having kept up with the two brothers drink for drink all night.
‘You have to excuse my brother,’ says Alfred. ‘He’s not himself.’
‘Who is he?’ I say, making a clumsy attempt at humour.
Alfred surprises me by laughing heartily. I would like to laugh too but I’m suddenly unable to progress from the thought to the action. Divining my predicament, Alfred comes and takes me by the arm, escorting me as far as the door to my room.
‘Happy birthday,’ he says, taking his leave of me.
He smiles at me in such an uncharacteristically tender way I’m immediately tempted to fall into his arms and sob. Partly this is the effect of too much gin, but in truth it is also because, even sober, I’m sometimes stricken by a terrifying aloneness, a sense that all human connections are too fleeting and fragile to be of any lasting comfort, and that if anything they are designed purely in order to make us suffer.
Thomas, I have since learnt, lost his wife and young sons a little over a year ago, when the coastal steamer left from Perth and sailed straight into the path of a hurricane. It is presumed she overturned and sank somewhere out to sea – too far away for any of the debris, or any of the drowned, to wash into shore.
I’M NOT SURE why I decide to write to Celia in the middle of the night, except that it seems impossible to write to my father. If I wrote to my father I would have to assure him that my success here is inevitable, and that I’m certain to benefit greatly from my professional experience in this part of the world. And although I begin such a letter, I soon abandon the attempt in favour of a different kind of communication altogether.
From Ernest Overton, Government Hospital, Broome, Western Australia
To Mrs Terrence Appleby, 46 Highfield Grove, Kew, Victoria.
March 27th, 1913
I hope this finds you well and happily settled into your new life. I’ve never told you how much I enjoyed meeting Terrence at your wedding. He seems like a thoroughly decent chap, and steady in a way that I am not, which is no doubt why you chose him. I am writing to say that I do not blame you in any way, as I trust you do not blame me. The fact is we did not suit each other, and there is an end to it.
As for me I am in Broome, as you see, and finding the life here confusing and unsettling, the mode of doing things being so opposed to everything I’m accustomed to. You, no doubt, would tell me it is only what I deserve, for leaving the familiar behind and seeking out what is novel and demanding. However, the truth is that I had very little choice in the matter, because once you were married and no longer mine I couldn’t remain in Melbourne another minute. From that day on the city had no place for me any more and I occupied it like a ghost or spirit, haunting all of our old meeting places in some futile attempt to recapture the past, only to fail over and over again.
I wonder if you think of me sometimes. I think of you constantly. At dinner this evening I was asked if I’d left Melbourne because of a girl. I replied in the negative but only because I was too ashamed to tell the truth.
Please forgive my maudlin tone. It is three in the morning and the heat makes it impossible to sleep. When I do finally close my eyes I pray I might see you in my dreams, as you were when we first met, and when everything still seemed possible for us.
I remain your friend and ardent admirer,
MY GRANDMOTHER HAS been to see me. She comes in the evenings, after the laundry is closed for the day and she’s fed her boarders. She brings me a portion of whatever she has cooked for their dinner, as the hospital does not provide anything more than one basic meal a day, which more often than not is inedible. Essa, my grandmother calls it, though never within earshot of the nuns. It means a mess of the kind you feed to pigs. Today she brought hijiki, grilled mackerel with rice and miso soup, and nikujyaga, made with Mr Nakashima’s best pork.
She talks to me for an hour while I eat, the way she used to when I was a girl, mainly to make sure that I finish everything on my plate. She used to warn me that if I left one grain of rice in my bowl it would be disrespectful to the farmers and to the spirits who watch over their fields, and most importantly to her, because wasn’t it she who took me in when my mother died and wasn’t it she who slaved day and night to feed and clothe me and send me to be schooled?
‘You’re too thin,’ she tells me in the hospital. ‘No man will ever look at you again until you put some meat on your bones.’
Always the same thing with my grandmother. Always the promise that some man will come along to claim me for his own and treat me like a princess because of my beautiful pale skin and my shapely body. According to my grandmother I have curves, where pure Japanese girls have straight lines. I’m told that my mother had curves as well, although it’s not clear to me where she got them since I’m never told who my grandfather was, or where he came from. He is a phantom, just as my own father is a phantom. I come from a long line of phantoms it seems, men who appear in the night and are gone by morning, leaving nothing but their curves to remember them by.
While I eat she tells me stories from her day at the laundry and news from what she read in the newspapers, and sometimes she tells me some lie about her life and my mother’s and how I came to be in the world. I know she is hoping to prise some response out of me this way, make me engage in conversation, but I have no wish to do so, not with her, not after what she has done. She thinks she is still my friend. She thinks we can go back to the way things were when I was small and motherless and in need of her guidance. But I would rather die than talk to her. What kind of woman markets her own great-grandchild as if he were a farm animal? I know that’s what she did. I also know why she did it, why she thought it would be better for the baby to be raised in a white family, with white parents, in a country where the best of everything would be available to him as he grew into a white man. My grandmother believes in whiteness the way others believe in the Second Coming. She feeds me in the hospital because, despite my crime, she still believes my skin will have the power to save me some miraculous day, when some new man comes along – the one she is fattening me up to meet. I must be presentable at all times; even in my lunacy I must be presentable, for this new man, whoever he is, will not be interested in me unless I’m ripe and plump and juicy.
Like a fresh peach, Marcus said. He would stroke my cheek with his work-worn hands and tell me I had skin so pink and velvety he wanted to eat me. His own skin was burned bright red by the sun and covered in bleached hairs. Naked, he was a patchwork of sore redness and milky whiteness, where his underwear had protected his private parts. His sex was grey, like a pork-meat sausage, and ringed with ginger hair – the result, he told me, of his Scottish breeding. Privately, I thought the overall result was comical, but I never told Marcus that, in case he thought I was mocking him, which is something I would never do. Marcus was not the type of man you want to mock or make fun of. He was not like any of the other men who boarded with my grandmother. He was not even like any of the other white divers, who drank and gambled and whored as hard as the coloured men did and sometimes worse. My grandmother spotted the difference in him straight away, guessed that he was a devoted son, proposed that the letters he wrote constantly in a corner of the dining room were to a mother back in England, telling her how well he was doing, how it was only a matter of time before he mastered the art of diving for shell and made a name for himself with a fortune to match.
‘Proud,’ my grandmother decided, ‘and lonely.’ She suggested I offer to keep him company some afternoons when my work in the laundry was finished, hinting that this was the kind of man I had been saving myself for, me with my peachy skin. I was too good, she was always telling me, to give my heart to just anyone. And I knew exactly what she meant. I’d watched the other girls – my classmates from the convent – marry the first boy who asked, push out a baby every year or so, lose all of their strength and vitality keeping house, having nothing to show for it in the end but a blackened eye once in a while and a haunted look, as if the wolf was trying to blow down the door.
At least my grandmother saved me from the wolf. ‘You’re not like them,’ she said, ‘you’re special.’ And I believed her, acted special, made out that nothing ordinary was of any interest to me, that ordinary girls were beneath my contempt, that coloured boys disgusted me, that I was put here on earth in order to fulfill some special mission.
‘Arrogant,’ my teachers complained. ‘Fails to comply with instructions. Does not respect authority.’ Music to my grandmother’s ears, given her standards, and mine, were so far in advance of the teachers.
‘They’re just a lot of ignorant Irish farm girls,’ she told me, and hired a woman to educate me at home, a Mrs Tanaka, who knew both English and Japanese poetry, and played the piano, and made her living taking photographs in a studio behind her husband’s general store.
‘AM I DISTURBING you?’ I say to Marcus, sidling up to him in the dining room after the lunch sitting is over. This is how it all begins. This is how I fall into my grandmother’s trap, the one she’s been preparing for me ever since the Englishman first walked through the door looking for a room. Six foot tall, blonde curls, eyes the colour of new grass. ‘You’ll be one of the navy men?’ says my grandmother, her nut-brown face lighting up with joy. She couldn’t have been happier if Jesus Christ himself had just shown up in search of lodgings.
‘Marcus Davenport,’ says the navy diver. ‘In the employ of Alfred Hardmann.’
Oh, if this isn’t music to my grandmother’s ears. It means there’ll be no trouble with the bill, since Mr Hardmann always treats her well, makes sure his men cause the minimum trouble, pays for repairs if there’s ever any fighting. She calls to me to come through from the office and see to Mr Davenport’s paperwork.
‘Give him the single room at the back,’ she says. ‘It’s the quietest.’
‘Thank you,’ says Marcus, his smile revealing a row of teeth as even as a horse’s. I lead him upstairs and hand him his key.
‘Thank you,’ he says again, unable to look at me straight, his eyes always sliding away to the side.
And that’s how it goes for two whole weeks, every time I pass him in the hallway, or meet him on the front steps, or lean over his shoulder to serve him his dinner. ‘Thank you,’ is all he says, his head down, his hand reaching up to push a lank of hair off his forehead, his eyes meeting mine for an instant then sliding off to stare into a corner.
But he keeps watching me all the same, looking up from his letter writing every time my back’s turned, and gazing at me while I clear away the dirty dishes and wipe down the table. All the men gaze at me, but only Marcus pretends not to. All the men make conversation as soon as my grandmother’s out of the room. They want to know how old I am, they want to know if I have any time after work to meet them down at the Star. But Marcus doesn’t say a word. He just keeps writing his letters or reading his book, until finally it is me who speaks to him. Am I disturbing him? By the way he blushes ear to ear I can tell I am.
‘No,’ he stammers. ‘Not at all.’
‘I wondered if you’d like some company,’ I say. ‘You always seem to be on your own.’
‘Oh,’ he says, folding his letter away and screwing the lid onto his pen. ‘No. Well sometimes but not always. At least not when I’m at work.’
‘May I sit down?’ I say.
He jumps up and pulls out a seat for me then waits until I’m settled before he resumes his place.
‘Which isn’t very often,’ I say.
‘It’s the lay-up,’ he says. ‘As you know. But there’s still a lot of preparation to do.’
‘My name is Alice.’
‘I know,’ he says. ‘Your grandmother told me.’
‘She told me you write to your mother a lot. She posts your letters.’
He blushes again, this time a deeper shade of pink. I see the sun has darkened the freckles on his nose and cheeks.
‘I do,’ he says. ‘It’s more like a journal I send home so that I can keep a record of events.’
‘Events?’ I say. ‘What kind of events?’
‘Not just events,’ he says. ‘Impressions, feelings, things I overhear in conversation.’
‘And your mother reads them?’
He hesitates before answering. ‘She does.’
‘So you’re not lonely at all then,’ I say. ‘You have a mother who loves you.’
‘I do,’ he says, embarrassed, his gaze fixed on the greasy tabletop in front of him.
‘And your father? Does he love you too?’
‘My father drowned at sea when I was two,’ he says.
‘A sailor,’ I say.
‘But that didn’t stop you from joining the navy?’
‘It’s in the blood,’ he says, finally looking at me, as if I’m the only thing of any interest in the room.
‘I’ve been watching you,’ he says.
‘I know,’ I say.
‘You’re very lovely.’
Now it is me who blushes and looks away into a corner. I’ve been told this before, how lovely I am, but never by someone I care for the way I care for Marcus. I only have to glimpse him writing in his corner, or striding down Chiba Lane on his way to Mr Hardmann’s office, or coming from the bathhouse in a fresh shirt and trousers, and my breath catches, making me dizzy. He must know. Perhaps he even feels the same way, because the very next thing he reaches under the table and takes hold of my hand.
‘Come for a walk with me,’ he says.
‘I can’t,’ I say. ‘Everyone will see us.’
‘Does that matter?’
‘It matters to me.’ At the same time I’m taken with an urgent need to be alone with Marcus so that I can gaze at him without interruption or shame. ‘Do you know where the picture house is?’ I say.
Marcus nods. A sweat has broken out on his broad forehead, making it drip.
‘Meet me around the back of the screen in twenty minutes. There’s a door on the right. I’ll wait inside.’
I’ve known about this door ever since I was a girl. It leads to a room where the owner of the picture house, Mr O’Reilly, keeps extra canvas deck chairs, and where children sometimes sneak in and crawl through a hole in the wall to get inside the theatre. But to fit through the hole you have to be small, and to open the door you have to have someone to help you climb up to get the key from the ledge where Mr O’Reilly hides it. It’s also the place where I used to go with Samuel O’Reilly before he was sent away to boarding school, and where he kissed me goodbye and put his hand inside my dress and promised to write to me every day after he was gone.
My grandmother never knew about Samuel O’Reilly, because I never told a soul and neither did he. He never wrote to me either, the way he’d promised to, and after his first year away he came home for a holiday with a posh new voice and a cold manner towards everyone he knew from his boyhood.
‘Too good for us now,’ said my friend Meg, and I realised that was probably true, that once you were gone from Broome and heading out into the world, it was a good idea to keep going and never come back.
I don’t know how long Marcus and I are gone that first time, but most afternoons after that we sneak off for an hour or so to lounge around in Mr O’Reilly’s spare chairs, holding hands, kissing, telling each other our plans.
‘You could come with me to Melbourne when I finish here,’ says Marcus.
‘I promised my grandmother I would never leave her,’ I say.
‘She can come too,’ he says. ‘I’ll buy her a laundry in Melbourne.’
‘What about your mother?’ I say. ‘Won’t she miss you?’
‘I’ll build a house big enough for us all to live together.’
‘Don’t you want to go back to England?’
‘Never. Not now I’ve found you.’
Most days there are storms around four o’clock, so loud and violent there is no point in talking until they’re over. Marcus makes a bed for us to lie on from the lengths of canvas Mr O’Reilly uses for repairing his chairs. While the rain hammers down on the tin roof and the wind tries to dismantle the walls, we undress and do things I’ve seen other people do in their rooms at the boarding house. Despite my grandmother always telling me not to look, some people forget to close their doors, or refuse to answer when I knock to come in, and then you’d have to be blind not to see what’s going on in front of your face, and deaf not to hear. But it’s one thing to see other people do things, and quite another to do things yourself, and I never come out of the store room at the picture house without feeling I’m on fire, without sensing little licks of flame shooting out from my skin and threatening to set a light to everything I see or touch. Marcus always waits five minutes before he follows me, and then I can feel the same heat coming off him, the little flames he sends out like tongues to singe the back of me, to snap at my heels. But when I try to remember the cause of this feverish glow nothing coherent comes to mind, just moments – Marcus’s face hanging in space above mine, his mouth clamped to my breast, my hand pressing at the small of his back, his tongue in my ear – and it seems that in all of these unconnected moments I’m missing, the same way I’m missing when I smash the stool over Mrs Bleakley’s head, or when my mother dies. I take this as a sign that I’m not responsible, that these are the times when life is acting on me, and not the other way round, and that it isn’t possible for anyone to stop what is bound to happen to them, no matter how hard they try.
‘I DIDN’T KNOW,’ I sob. ‘You should have told me.’ Because for all of her urging on with regard to Marcus my grandmother has forgotten to warn me of what could happen if we weren’t careful, which we never were. Many other things, but not careful. In some respects my grandmother is shameless, but in others she cannot bring herself to utter the necessary words, so that whatever I’ve seen in the boarding house bedrooms I’ve never made the connection to babies, or at least I’ve never seen how the connection applies to me personally.
‘He’ll have to be told,’ says my grandmother, hinting that it’s my job to tell Marcus rather than hers.
‘It wasn’t his fault,’ I say stupidly, as if I’m more afraid of getting Marcus into trouble than of anything that might happen to me.
My grandmother smiles and shakes her head, as if she doesn’t know whether or not to scold me, given my ignorance of the facts.
‘Are you saying it was an immaculate conception?’ she says.
It is my turn to smile then, despite my misery. ‘I’m saying I liked it,’ I say.
My grandmother reaches out and wipes the tear stains off my chin. ‘Of course you did,’ she says. ‘What girl doesn’t?’
THE NEXT TIME we’re lying on our canvas bed at the back of the picture house, I say what has to be said into the nape of Marcus’s neck while he’s turned away from me.
‘What are you talking about?’ he says, whipping around to face me, like I’d just stuck him with a sharp pin. I can see from the look on his face that my news is the very last thing he wants to hear.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say, and I am – sick and sorry. I can’t even go near the kitchen any more without wanting to vomit. Of all the smells that make me gag, it’s the kitchen smell of steaming rice that makes me gag the most, straight out the back door and into the mud, even when there’s nothing in my stomach to bring up.
‘I can’t marry you,’ says Marcus. ‘Let’s just get that straight.’
‘I never expected you to,’ I say.
‘So what are you expecting me to do?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say, trying not to cry.
The next thing he has his arms around me and is crying himself, or laughing and crying at the same time.
‘Poor Alice,’ he says. ‘My poor girl. I’ll look after you. I will. I just have to get started, do what I came here to do. I’ve been checking my equipment for more than a month. There’s only so many times you can check your equipment.’
And then I realise that his worry is not so much the baby but the money, the fact that he has none until the season starts, that he’s relying on Alfred Hardmann for his bed and board, and has nothing left over to spend on himself.
‘How long have we got?’ he says.
That he’s talking about ‘we’ means I’m no longer facing my grandmother alone. I can tell her not to worry now. I can say she was right all along about Marcus being a different sort of man.
‘My grandmother thinks it’ll come in October,’ I say.
‘So I can dive all season,’ he says, wiping his teary face on the sleeve of his shirt. ‘And make us a small fortune.’
I’ve never seen a man cry before, unless he was drunk and raving, but Marcus is neither. After we get dressed he takes my face in his hands and looks at me long and hard.
‘We’ll be fine,’ he says. ‘Please don’t worry.’
‘I won’t,’ I say. ‘Not now.’
EXCEPT WHAT WOMAN doesn’t worry? There are so many things in the world to worry about, especially when you’ve brought another person into the whole unstoppable mess of it. It’s like you’ve turned yourself into a time bomb, and at any minute you could trip over and blow yourself up. Although sometimes I think I’ve done that already, ripped myself into bloody pieces. One belongs to my grandmother, one to my dead mother, one to Marcus, one to the baby, and there’s not one particle left for me. Of the girl I used to be, there’s only the pale ghost. I only have to glance at the window beside my hospital bed, or into the water basin the orderly brings me to wash my face in, and there she is, staring back at me, wanting to know why I abandoned her. If I open my mouth to speak she’ll tear out my tongue.
I know this without her having to tell me. I know this because it’s what I’d do if I was as angry as she is.