28 May, 1934
A brush of skin against her arm drew her from the fugue of sleep that was lifting too slowly, while a rough hand pushed the nightgown above her thighs and the smell of port and cigarettes swamped her lungs, along with the suffocating heat.
‘Beautiful?’ the man whispered. Angele was moving about the house and he didn’t want the servant to hear them.
She wished the tune that was playing endlessly in her head would take away the pounding hangover that shredded its way to the ends of her sleep-roughened hair; the misery amplified by the mingling of their sour breaths in the closed room. Her stomach churned. Da-da-daa, da-da doh-duu, da-da-daa, da-da-de-doo. The waltz from last night. How many times did we dance to that? The man pulled down both straps of her gown until it sat like a twisted lacy wreathe at her hips.
‘Oi Garbo . . .’ he trailed off, and she lay back into the pillows and pulled him onto her, remembering that this was the man she had married ten days before. ‘Song of the Islands’ continued to play in her mind in time with his quietly fervid lovemaking and she felt the deep and overwhelming urgency he had for her, then a muted shudder convulsed through him and she thought of the words her mother wrote the night before she left Sydney for her new life in the islands.
Wordlessly he pushed himself off her and rolled towards the bedside table, shook out a couple of Egyptians and lit one for them both; and she felt the stickiness of their intimacy spread under and beneath her as the sweat from their bodies trickled off her skin. His arm slid back around her neck, leaning into the handful of hair he was curling through his fingers, murmuring loving words as she lay in the steamy crook of his arm; an ashtray balanced on the damped down hair of his bare belly. The tobacco on his breath nudged a worm-trail of nausea that slowly writhed in the back of her throat.
‘I don’t feel well,’ she said, stamping out the half-smoked cigarette.
He pulled her closer then kissed her face and she smelled her own rancid breath; she was shocked to think a man would want her in this fusty state and she realised how this man must love her. He untangled their bodies and slid his bare feet onto cool timber floorboards, pulled a flimsy cotton housecoat over his nakedness and left the room to find Angele. She flushed at the sight of the housecoat that stuck fast to his skin from their sweat and lovemaking and wondered how she was going to face the servant who by now, would know of their morning intimacy.
‘Angele!’ she heard him call, ‘Missus needs some fruit salts!’
He came back to the room with a glass, pitcher of water, and a Vincent’s powder; the loosely sashed housecoat gaped open at the front and she could see the strip of his lean body, coarse black hairs springing out from his chest trailing down to a thick crinkly mat at his groin. His self-assuredness accentuated her own repression and she looked away, embarrassed, pulling the bed sheet higher when she heard the servant outside the bedroom door.
‘Leave it at the door, Angele,’ he said to the servant. ‘Oi, Beautiful, you’ll be right with a rest.’ He fetched the glass of fruit salts, put it on the side table, then leaned down and pressed slow kisses along her forehead. ‘Take the Vincent’s and drink the fruit salts. I’m going down to the office but I’ll be back in a couple of hours.’ He pulled out some Egyptians and left them on the table. ‘I’ll get some tobacco from Eaton.’ He knotted the gaily patterned curtains that covered the flyscreened window, returned to her and kissed her long on the lips, then left her alone in the room.
She took the Vincent’s, drank the fruit salts, and lay back against a pile of pillows, a gradual awareness of her surroundings was pushing through the alcoholic thump and the music that continued to play in her head. Closing her eyes she became conscious of everything at once. Heavy humid heat cloyed the room, the still air steeped with the residue of lovemaking; warm dampness seeped through the bed sheets, beads of perspiration were welling in the curve of her back and the pits of her arms, as a cool sticky smudge spread from her legs onto the bed. Wood-fire smoke blended with the stale odour of the Egyptians; a faint floral smell was trying to push its way into the stagnant room.
Opening her eyes she saw velvety early morning daylight glowing through the louvered window—she was grateful that the room wasn’t facing east to spare the bounding pain in her head from a full assault of fresh sunshine. She could see the source of the perfume in the fuzzy outline of a frangipani through the flyscreen; heavy with pure white and humming with bees, a whispering breeze barely managed to fan its fresh fragrance through the mesh. A lei made from dozens of the once-sweet frangipanis was hanging now bruised and browning off the end of the curtain rail, dead and drooping hibiscus were skewered in between.
She could hear Angele speaking to her new husband in the funny Pidgin English she knew she’d have to try and to learn; she thought she could hear Harold tapping on a washbasin and hoped he was cleaning away any part of her left on him before going to the office and she flushed with shame—signs of intimacy had never been pronounced in her family home. Outside the house she could hear women, mothers, calling out to each other, and to squealing, laughing, squabbling children in the same sing-song Pidgin language; and a frozen anxiety washed her down with perspiration, her aching head almost burst with fear at what she had done in marrying this man and moving to such foreign land.
Through budding tears she surveyed the room she thought would be her home for the rest of her married life. Apart from the floral curtains, which looked new and hastily attached, the room itself was manly. She could see that Harold had made a bed to fit them both but the sheets were still the size of a single and she wondered how she would get some more to fit. What would Mum think? Maybe I can ask Mary. She knew it was silly to think that her mother would be appalled that she shared a marital bed after having six children of her own, but a torrent of shame consumed her. And she started to think of the family she’d left behind in Sydney.
Esther ‘Tibby’ Frances Downward was the second youngest of the six children born into the family of Charles Cranston Downward from Victoria, and Mary Grahame of New South Wales. By the age of thirty-one Tibby (or ‘Tib’ as she was known) resigned herself to greeting old age as a spinster and sharing with her sister, housekeeping duties for Elouera, the large family home in Haberfield that her older brother Charlie had bought for the entire family to live, maintaining the financial upkeep through his rank of Surgeon Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Australian Navy.
Her sister Mary—whom they all called Maree—was the eldest of the six and worked as a fashion buyer for David Jones, a job which came with some prestige; her younger brother Gordon worked as a bookkeeper; while Tib was a self-learned tailoress and sometimes assistant at a local beauty salon. Her oldest brother, Thomas, had died at the age of twenty-one at Lone Pine in 1915, while her only sibling to have left Elouera was Dorothea (or Girlie as she was nicknamed). Two years older than Tib, Girlie married into a family of lawyers and had her first child—the only baby born into the large family. Girlie, Doug, and the baby Patricia lived in Ashfield. No one ever moved far away in those days.
Sounds of movement from within the house snapped her memories shut and Tib realised she was naked in the bed. She rummaged through the suitcase that was still sitting on the bedroom floor and found one of the dresses she’d worn on her trip the year before; she felt vulnerable and nervy that she was in a strange house with an even stranger servant and was terrified that Angele would come into the room. She found a chair in the corner stacked with Harold’s clothes—which she placed on the sideboard—moved the chair to the bedside table and sat. Her watch showed 7.30 am.
At 11 am Harold boomed his return through the house.
‘Oi, Beautiful, your little breadwinner’s home!’
He came into the bedroom and found her curled on the bed, quietly crying, cradling her stomach.
‘Essie Darling, what’s wrong?’
She couldn’t answer or utter a word; just rolled back and forth on the bed.
‘Angele!’ he called out, ‘?Yu lukim Missus tude moning?’
‘No Bos. No lukim Missus.’
Harold grabbed Tib by the shoulders and tried to pull her upright but her knees bent towards her chest and she wailed. He looked at the sideboard and saw the pitcher was empty of water then he pulled away her hands that guarded her stomach and saw her low and bulging abdomen. He touched his hand to her stomach and she groaned; her belly was hard and distended underneath her dress.
‘Have you not left this room at all? Why didn’t you go?’ and he scooped her in his arms and raced her to the outhouse yelling out to Angele, ‘lusim hia, Angele. Iu go lukim viles! Iu kambek nekes tumoro!’
‘?Iu laik helpim, Bos?’
‘Go Angele, and don’t come back for two days! Missus needs private time!’ He kicked open the outhouse door and pushed them both through the narrow entrance that was only wide enough for one; the rusty steel frame gouged tracks along his back as he leant in to seat her on the toilet, his fingernails scraped down her buttock as he pulled her underpants free.
He crouched down muttering, ‘Darling, Darling, Darling,’ his forehead resting on hers. ‘What . . . what . . . why didn’t you go?’ Massaging the small of her back, he eased her shoulders forward and a light trickle slowly streamed from her body. A minute passed before she could speak.
‘I couldn’t leave the room. I didn’t know where to go. I was scared. I’m sorry. Sorry. Sorry, sorry,’ she wept into his shoulder.
24 June, 1935
Tib stooped over the half empty suitcase that Harold placed on two chairs he’d dragged next to the clothes-strewn bed. Her breathing laboured and her hair sagged in the endless humidity; damp stains circled the armpits of her loose cotton dress, and she could hear the sounds she’d become so used to—children splashing about on a make-shift boat in the bay, women chatting and laughing as they went about their day, Angele whistling some Evangelical tune in the kitchen. Harold had left for the office to prepare for the regular six-weekly arrival of the boat; he knew that she had her own way of organizing things and thought the better than offering to help.
She went through the sideboard drawers, pulled out some papers and sat heavily on the bed. As she gazed at the carefully sorted and folded letters her mind flourished with sentiment and desire and she reread the first one he’d sent. How far we’ve come since then. She carefully refolded the letter to the top of the pile and remembered her first waking day on the island.
About the Story
This is an extract from a novel in progress, which was developed during the Faber Writing Academy Writing A Novel course 2017.
At the age of thirty-one, Esther ‘Tibby’ Downward had resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood. The year was 1933 and Australia was in the grips of the Great Depression, but family affluence allowed her one last adventure before accepting a mundane life as her brother’s housekeeper. She wasn’t to know how a 32-day boat trip to the Solomon Islands would change her life—for the better, then the worse; in ways that affected those that were her closest, and followed into the next generation.
Daria Kill works as a mental health professional by night; reviews events and restaurants for The Australia Times online magazine and blogs on life’s misadventures by day. This is Daria’s first novel.