Garrison Town – Part 2
Continued from yesterday …
The only blacks Iris had seen before the Yanks came to town were the Abos who hung around the parks and alleys of South Brisbane. You didn’t mix with them. They kept with their own people, except some of the girls who tarted themselves around the bars and factories at night. The men drank and brawled. You wouldn’t know they existed unless one of them got knifed and killed and it got in the newspaper. The Yank blacks were nothing like them. Wild-eyed Rastuses, her father had said they were when he first saw them on the city streets. That’s how they looked in the movies.
She saw Louis one Sunday about a month back when she was going to the Trocadero with her sometime friend Gloria who worked in the bar at Lennon’s and had dated more Yanks than Iris could count.
‘Look at that gorgeous buck Negro,’ Gloria said. ‘Don’t he think he’s the big shot, but.’ Louis was sitting on a crate outside a café, playing a guitar. Iris was looking good that day, new dress from Finneys, lipstick and stockings her father’s mate Vic had taken in lieu of a repair bill on a truck.
‘Hey babe,’ the Negro said, ‘don’t you look a picture.’ She gave him her home telephone number, telling him to ring in the late morning when her father made it his business to be out of the house. He called about a week later when she’d all but stopped hoping he might. It was just on midday. Her father picked up the phone as he was coming through the door.
‘Some Yank for you,’ he told her. He never asked questions he didn’t want to know the answer to. ‘Sounds like a real hometown boy,’ he noted sarcastically. He never said black. Wouldn’t have even thought it. If the day ever came when you could see who you were talking to down the telephone line, Iris thought, a girl would have to pick her dates carefully.
The Digger knew the girl. ‘Don’t trust the Abos, mate,’ he told Louis. ‘They’ll thieve the fillings out of your teeth while you’re asleep.’ He winked. ‘You blokes are okay. Civilised in the ways of the white man. Got a smoke?’
Louis broke open a fresh pack of Camels. The Digger was about nineteen, unkempt and dirty. When Louis came upon him he was sitting on the kerb, lacing his boots. He wanted to hear Louis play his guitar. ‘Jimmie Rodgers,’ he enthused. ‘Jeez, I love the way he does that yodelling. You yodel? Don’t know that I ever heard a Negro yodel.’
‘Niggers holler,’ Louis told him. The Digger took a long drag on his cigarette.
‘I just love these Yankee smokes,’ he said.
Louis nodded. ‘Where’d you see Rose?’
The Digger knew Rose from the red hat she sometimes wore. ‘My mate been with her,’ he told Louis. ‘Hot little girlie, he reckoned. Don’t go with the street tarts myself. I got a sweetheart back home in Rocky. She’s enough for me.’
He had a boyish pockmarked face with a day’s growth of downy fair hair on his upper lip. Rocky could have been the other side of the continent, for all Louis knew. To his ears, all Australians sounded the same.
The Digger introduced himself as Jacko Finn. He followed Louis down Stanley Street the way a stray dog will tail a fellow who has patted its head instead of giving its butt a kick. He told Louis that Rose and two or three other black tarts operated out of a cottage down near the dry dock. He didn’t know whether they lived there or if it was just their ‘place of business’. The expression caused him to snigger. Louis thought he was a hayseed. Every few yards he’d stop to tighten the knot on his bootlaces.
Turning the corner back onto Grey Street, they passed a café just opening its doors for business. The proprietor’s name, printed above the door, was Nowak. Louis hadn’t seen a Polack name since he’d left Chicago.
‘You want some brekkie, Louis?’ Jacko asked. ‘I know this cove. He’ll have a couple of nice lamb chops for us. You and me, we’re mates, right?’
Louis considered the dull ache cramping his gut. It wasn’t hunger for a greasy spoon lamb chop. Balls scratching cook and a gob of spit in the pan to check that it was hot enough to fry. This godforsaken place, he thought. His soul sang for home.
Try as he might, Theo could not erase Penny’s smirking face from his mind. He had noted the same look on certain of his more regular patients in recent weeks, those time wasters with boils on their necks or bunions protruding through the split seams of their cheap shoes. He didn’t deserve this. Hadn’t he given Iris a good life? Happiness? Happiness was a two-bedroom apartment in Balfour House, was it not? Happiness was an account at Finneys, a motorcar in the garage, dinner parties, cocktails and gossipy afternoons with doctors’ wives. And love and sex, it went without saying … How could he not give her happiness? He said nothing when she left. He thought a few weeks with her father would give her time to reflect. It was the times…
Everything was the times, affecting the populace like some mind changing drug. He waited for her to come back to him, renewed and loving. He heard instead that she was seen riding in hired cars with allied serviceman, her arm around their thick necks, her face painted like a street tart’s. What could she want from these flash, uniformed loudmouths, except sex? Wasn’t that the sentiment expressed in Sergeant Penny’s contemptuous leer? The situation he had been caught in that morning could not have been more grotesquely suggestive. Penny knew it, half the neighbourhood knew it. How deliciously likely that the sailor’s girl choking on gin and God knows what could have been precious Dr Simm’s wife.
Another Digger had joined them, a redheaded rough-skinned guy, squeezing in the narrow booth beside Jacko to share his lamb chop. He didn’t look at Louis.
‘Cripes, Jacko,’ he said, ‘you don’t have to sit with Yankee coons.’
‘Louis is me mate,’ Jacko said.
‘Since half an hour ago.’ The Digger’s name was Blue on account of his red hair. He told Louis he didn’t mean no offence, calling him coon. Louis laughed.
‘Louis lost his dog tags,’ Jacko said. ‘Abo tart pinched it. We’re gunna find the bitch, ain’t we Louis? Get it back.’
‘Give her a poke, did you?’ Blue asked Louis. Louis said nothing. Blue’s talk could be as honey-coated as he could make it, it didn’t fool Louis one bit.
‘Be best when you boys move on,’ Blue said. ‘Get stuck into the Japs instead of fooling with our Abos, stirring them up. Cripes, they’ll be wanting the vote next. Bad enough we had to give it to the sheilas, eh Jacko?’
Jacko had pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his greasy lips. ‘Bugger politics,’ he said. ‘Let’s go get your dog tags, Louis.’
Blue kept his seat. He stared at Louis. ‘Yous boys want me along?’
Jacko shook his head. ‘She’ll be right, mate. I know where we’ll find the tart.’ Blue was staring at Louis as if he hadn’t heard.
‘No,’ Louis said. He moved quickly, sliding his butt out of the diner before Blue could make his retort, which Louis could see he had a mind to. He’d left the Stella in the Polack’s care, behind the serving counter. The Polack was wiping glasses with a dirty rag.
‘Give me my guitar,’ Louis said.
The Polack, cussing some Polack oath, slid the Stella over the countertop. Even in the gloomy yellow half-light of the café, Louis could see splatter of breakfast fat over the guitar’s polished top. The Polack shrugged. He wiped his rag across the strings. If he spits, Louis thought, I’ll knock his lousy Polack teeth out.
‘You paying?’ the Polack asked.
Louis laughed. ‘So you can charge me double?’
‘You don’t pay, I call the MPs,’ the Polack said. He tapped a grubby square of paper taped to the wall. ‘I got the number. Here in five minutes.’
Louis rested the Stella against the front of the counter. A fly buzzed in his head. When he felt a touch at his elbow it was like a baton striking him, making him flinch as if it had caused him real pain. He knew it was Blue, and he knew he was going to regret what he was about to do, but he did it anyway. In one slick move, because he was practised at it, he pulled the jack knife from his pocket and pressed the open blade against the Digger’s throat.
A sullen-looking girl of about sixteen, a grubby apron hanging loosely from her waist, answered the bell. Theo announced himself brusquely. The house, solidly built of red brick and stone was dark and cool. The girl directed him to an over-furnished front room. He could hear a girl’s voice raised in anger in another part of the house. A door slammed. Presently Mrs Douglas entered. She was a small, expensively dressed woman of forty, pale-skinned as if she’d spent too long out of the sun. He wondered if she were anaemic. She apologised for calling him out, when she knew how busy his practice was, and the frightful cost of petrol. Theo smiled
‘It’s my daughter …’ Mrs Douglas said. She lowered her eyes. The maid brought tea. Theo listened to the mantel clock’s measured tick. The maid closed the door.
‘Joy,’ Mrs Douglas informed him. ‘My eldest.’ The angry girl, Theo thought. She didn’t sound sick.
‘She’s pregnant,’ Mrs Douglas said. Theo sipped his tea, which was too hot and sweet for his taste.
‘How old is she?’
‘Seventeen. Girls … and this dreadful business …’
He supposed she meant the war. Her husband was a naval officer; Theo was vague about the rank. A large painting of a battleship, guns blazing, hung over the mantelpiece, above the ticking clock.
‘I’ll examine her,’ Theo said.
‘Yes. She’s less than two months …’
Theo stared at the woman’s small bony ankles and tiny feet. Iris could never wear shoes like that. They’d look ridiculous on her. She’d never cared much for expensive clothes, anyway. She was a utilitarian dresser. Practical. He liked that about her, comfort over fashion. Of course, a slim, well-heeled naval officer’s wife could carry off just about anything.
‘It would be better if she didn’t have it,’ Mrs Douglas said.
‘I imagine,’ Theo said. He’d last seen the girl some months back after she’d slipped and sprained her ankle, alighting from a punt on the river. He remembered her tittering laugh and knowing look as he examined the sprain. He had a lovely gentle touch, she told him. She’d raised the hem of her skirt considerably higher than was necessary. Her mother was sitting in reception, reading a novel she’d brought.
‘And the boy?’ Theo asked.
‘The father. Is he aware …?’
She lit a cigarette, ignoring him for the moment. A boyfriend, a nice lad from a good school, outraged but understanding and supportive parents … this wasn’t it. The deliciously named Joy had been spreading her favours much further afield. The girl was probably lucky not to have contracted venereal disease. Papers and medical journals arrived on his desk almost daily revealing figures and accounts of sexual abandon that would make a good man cry. Professional tarts were less of a problem than the goodtime girls, the enthusiastic amateurs like Mrs Douglas’s knocked up daughter. Professional girls were regularly rounded up and subjected to compulsory medical checks. A colleague of his had taken a position at the Wattlebrae Infectious Diseases Hospital. He told Theo about girls, still infected, jumping out of the window to root with American servicemen in the hospital grounds. Most were tarts, but many were wives whose servicemen husbands were overseas, fighting the good fight. One goodtime girl, a teacher of unsuspecting young college ladies, had infected a dozen men with gonorrhoea before being forcibly detained for treatment.
Theo said nothing of this. If the girl had VD he would have to report it. The mother had probably not even considered the pox. She stubbed her cigarette on a small silver ashtray. ‘How difficult would it be to get a termination?’ she asked.
Her directness caught him by surprise. He listened to the little mantel clock strike two before murmuring that he might be able to arrange a discreet referral.
‘As soon as possible,’ she said.
‘Of course.’ He smiled. She did not respond.
It was pointless speculating where she got her information. Such women always knew what they needed to know. A few words over afternoon tea or a card game … the urgency, he suspected, had less to do with social embarrassment or her daughter’s health than her husband’s unexpected return. It was no business of his how she might account for the necessary fee. Such procedures—in or out of wartime—never came cheap. He jotted a figure on a slip of notepaper, which she read without comment. A fair sum, he thought, in the circumstances. Backyard abortions were for shop girls and impoverished Catholic wives.
Hunger helped Louis run: an empty, grumbling belly. A full gut would have slowed him down. He could handle the Stella hanging over his shoulder. He’d lost count of the times he’d had to take off from street playing just because some cop or loudmouthed white boy took offence at his choice of guitar picking. He’d lost Jacko streets back when the mob had started after them. Louis didn’t have to hear Blue hollering for his black nigger ass to know it was the Digger leading the pack. Louis had never run so hard in his life. Hell, thieved dog tags wasn’t worth getting his throat cut.
Only the Jews in Europe got it worse than the coloureds in America, Louis had always thought. For that, he had the daily news to enlighten him. The daily news had never enlightened him about the habits of the Australian native. Sometimes Louis felt his life was like one of those bad dreams you wake from only to find yourself caught in another just as bad. Like he was running from one demon into the claws of another.
Louis knew what it meant. It meant there was no escaping your fate. But it never stopped him running. A little black mouse running on a wheel. It was what his Daddy told him. ‘You always running, boy, and never getting nowhere.’
Iris went out to the street when she heard aircraft, but there was nothing to see. It frightened her how aircraft so far away could make so much noise. It brought home to her the reality of wartime, more so than ration coupons and air raid shelters and identity cards. Or the streets filled with uniformed men and military trucks and cars trailing smoke from gas producing charcoal burners. All this seemed like some comic-like make believe world. She thought how everything was so frightful early in the year. The air seemed charged with fear and anxiety. You couldn’t pick up a newspaper without reading some terrible report on the front page. You never got the Japs out of your head, the savage things they were doing, their hateful unstoppable advance. Then the Yanks came and the Japs didn’t seem to be doing so well, and then the talk in the street and in the homes and the workplaces was about nylons and cheap spuds and two-timing lovers and what sort of woman would trade sex for a bag of onions. It was strange and exciting but no longer scary. At least, not so that it would keep you awake at night. Only the airplanes unnerved her, their rumbling engines making the china shake in the cabinet, and the newsfront pictures they impressed on her mind of falling bombs and burning cities.
Bio: Ian Kennedy Williams is the author of three novels and three collections of short stories. His novel REGRET (Penguin Books 2002) has recently been republished as an ebook by Momentum Books (momentumbooks.com.au).