I woke thinking of land —
how countries lodge in the body
long after you have moved elsewhere.
Bell Tongue, Paola Bilbrough
THERE IS a strange intimacy that death forces on us. I had not seen you for almost half a century when you died, but in name at least, you were still my husband. They sent me the boxes full of your papers: packets of letters, onion skin filled with your small, neat script. At first I did not want to open them. In the pages of your journal you had written my name. Over and over again, the letters blurring into a choppy hieroglyphics. The surfaces of things can barely contain what lies beneath.
Sometimes I think that the past is shaped by all the things that never happened. They seep through from the shadows, chafing at the edges of the seen. The words never said, the gestures withheld, a place, a photograph of the mouth of a harbour, an afternoon without a breath of air. A body that recedes from you even as you hold it close. We construct for ourselves a biography of longing.
I am holding in my hand an amber pendant you gave me. In some unknown Baltic town, this resin once collected seeds, leaves, wavering insects, tiny feathers.
I like the idea that so much can be kept safe inside a flawed translucence. Reason says this: half a century is long enough for grief, let it fall behind you, like a landscape long since forsaken. But when I think of you, I feel that same familiar tug, that feeling that we failed each other in some profound, unredeemable way.
I left Broome in December, 1929. I no longer breathe the high, seared air of the north, but when I close my eyes it comes to me. It carries voices and they reach me, even in my white room above the sea.
* * *
We arrived in Broome in the wet season, the lay-up, when the skies buckle with rain and pearling luggers list despondently in the receding tides. Those were days with no breath of air, no cooling breeze, days when the thermometer hovered above a hundred even in the shade. This is a town with the desert at its back; gritty brown winds scorch the streets and the bay in the afternoons and mangy dogs slink under the blue shade of mango trees.
Ancel led me through the wide, dusty streets, his hand firmly at my back. Crows circled above corrugated iron shacks and the clusters of Aborigines sat watching us on the sides of the road, talking in low voices. A small Malay man in a sarong and headscarf followed us, dragging my steamer trunk. Men lounged on the narrow verandas of shops and hotels. A flock of galahs rose above a store advertising fresh lemonade ices. Ancel smiled down at my horrified face. ‘Bit different to Peppermint Grove, then?’
We had been married only the week before. I had stood on the steps of St Mary’s, the clutch of gardenias in my hands already wilting in the January heat. It is all there. The bright, blunt morning, the gauzy light under the trees, the reception at my father’s house by the river. In the garden, with the wasps hovering above the rosebushes, I watched my father clap Ancel on the back; the weight of responsibility passing from one man to another. I rolled the strand of pearls that Ancel had given me that morning against my collarbone. ‘Pearls have to be worn constantly, you know,’ he had said. ‘Human skin keeps them shining. If they’re put away and never worn they grow dull and lifeless.’
My father was delighted with the match. Ancel was so handsome and purposeful, a dapper young geologist who had successfully turned his hand to pearling up in Broome. He had an odd grandeur to him, the allure of frontier encounters. His heroes were not human, but the sea and stone and rock. He waved his teacup excitedly and recounted for me the history of pearls, heightened dramatically by his own anecdotes. He moved from geology to palaeontology to poetry, collapsing the history of the world for me on those long afternoons. ‘Imagine, the Greeks thought pearls were formed when lightning struck the sea, whole waves bursting into flame.’ He quoted the classics: ‘When the goddess Aphrodite cried, pearls were formed. These luminous tears of the gods.’ He told me how he once travelled all the way to Russia to see La Pellegrina, the queen of pearls, a near-transparent sphere of one hundred and eleven grains.
One afternoon, he opened his hand to reveal a black Tahitian pearl. It lay gleaming darkly against the tender pink of his palm.
* * *
He was an organised admirer, Ancel, with his notes and copied-out poems and weekly flowers. After a night at the opera, dinners at my father’s house, afternoons wandering through the city’s art gallery, he asked me to marry him, to come to Broome. He was sitting across the table from me in an expensive restaurant; I could see myself reflected faintly in the gleaming wood panelling behind his head. I was wearing my mother’s German earrings. They are black glass and shaped like large teardrops; shining back across at me, they looked huge and luminous.
I would read and take long walks by the sea and watch films at the roofless cinema. There would be a house hidden behind lattice and dances at the Continental Hotel. I would love the gardens, full of mangroves with wild branches and trees bowed with fruit. It would be balmy and damp, a tropical country. While he talks I think of the luminous shine of pearls. I picture him at the stern of his ship, gazing out at the vast ocean.
* * *
The shadowy bungalow Ancel brings me to is garlanded with blossoms of green. There are rosewood tables covered with a faint layer of red grit, and an old piano, a grey cat stretched along the keys. When I take a book down from the shelf I see that clouds of mould have bloomed across the pages. Ancel’s bed is high and neat and draped by a conical white mosquito net.
While he is pouring drinks in the dining room, I push open the French doors to stare out at the garden. Poinciana trees and pink banana blossoms flare up against the green. Between the fingers, the flowers have the same texture as moist flesh.
In the mornings, I watch Ancel comb his hair, wet against his scalp, into slick furrows. In this northern corner of the country, my husband feels himself to be heroic. He is a frontiersman, an adventurer, swelled with colonial aspirations. He leans down and kisses me on the forehead. ‘It’s so good to have you here.’ His voice and breath come softly, right into my ear. Through the window behind him I watch a startled flock of butcher birds rise up above the tamarind trees.
Ancel was off to his offices by the port to order his accounts or oversee repairs on his boats or do whatever it was he needed to do to keep the smooth cogs of our life running. He would not reappear until dusk, when the Aboriginal cook, Regina, would lay out heavy plates of English food: baked potatoes, mutton drowning in gravy, peaches and custard. Ancel was tired by then and we ate mostly in silence while small insects dived at the sputtering candles and cicadas chirruped outside the windows.
In the endless afternoons I trailed around the house, hot, listless and ill at ease. Regina and the other Aboriginal maid, Mary, shrank against the walls when I approached and refused to meet my eyes. Time in Broome seemed warped, distended, marked by endless meals and cups of tea and drinks on the veranda at sunset.
* * *
We had arrived in Broome during the glory days of the town, when the dusty outpost was filled with people of all nations. There were Japanese and Malay divers, Chinese shopkeepers and Aboriginal stockmen. The shops in Johnny Chi Lane sold long soup, Chinese silk, opium, pearl-handled pistols. In Sheba Lane, Japanese prostitutes stared out from behind rattan blinds. In the white quarter, high-born ladies from the city drank Ceylon tea behind lattice and slept through the heat of the afternoons. Beyond the bungalows, the rhythmic tapping of clap-sticks from the native camps echoed through the night.
Years before, an Englishman, staring out across at a stark beach at a group of Aborigines dancing, had noticed the peculiar sheen of the pearl shell decorating their bodies. Less than a year later, the mania for pearls had spread across the country and a whole town had sprung up here between the desert and the sea. Fleets of pearling luggers furrowed the ocean and divers came from all over the globe to wrench their way down beneath the waves, some protected by rubber suits and copper helmets, some naked, and clutching huge stones to carry them down. An Aboriginal diver could be purchased for £20, a bottle of whisky, some tobacco. Every season, several divers return with a leg or shoulder twisted by the bends. I’ve seen these crippled men lurching down the main street, reduced to selling mud crabs or dugong from buckets strung from a pole across their shoulders.
Ancel employed only Japanese divers. I’ve seen the boarding house in town he bought for them to live in during the wet, the men lying in deckchairs on the narrow veranda. They looked pale and marooned. Ancel’s most skilful diver, a man called Tora, lives in a tin shed across our garden. Tora has a Japanese wife and four children, all of them born here in Broome. I’ve seen them walking home from town along the back road. Sometimes, in the swaddling humidity of the afternoons, the children crouch in the shade of the tamarind trees, flicking the flies from their faces and chattering softly. One evening I was standing on the veranda, watching the sudden rain, the thunder and gurgle of it loud against the roof, when I saw Tora’s wife standing outside her tiny house. Her face was turned upwards, eyes closed, the rain plastering her black hair against her face. After a few minutes her husband came out and stood beside her, his hands at her waist, his lips on the back of her neck, both of them veiled by sheets of water.
In Ancel’s study, there is a photograph taken on the steps of the bungalow before I came to Broome. My husband is in the centre of the frame, his arms folded across his chest. All the servants are lined up on either side of him; Mary, Regina, the Malay gardener, the three Chinese pearl cleaners, Tora and his family. They stare out almost expressionlessly at the camera, except for Tora and his wife. While everyone else was watching the photographer, they were gazing openly at each other across the heads of their children.
* * *
The day after the rainstorm I heard voices at the kitchen door. Regina was spooning the remains of our dinner into a tin dish held out by Tora’s wife, piling on spoonfuls of soft peas. It hadn’t occurred to me that the divers and their families had no income in the wet season. Ancel was impassive when I asked him about it. ‘We’re not running a charity here, you know,’ he said carefully. He reached across the bed and put his hand on my shoulder. Ancel’s need is heavy and hot, engulfing. His hands are always on my shoulders, around my waist, searching for me at night. He closes his eyes in concentration when he moves above me. After he is asleep, I stare hard at the folds of his face, the paleness of his skin and the small gap between his lips where his breath rushes in and out. The night carries the melancholy wailing of a traditional song from the native camp.
I wish I could surrender into love for my husband. He appears to me in my dreams and I feel only adoration for every inch of him; the large hands with their fine dark hairs, the stocky curve of his shoulders, the even, white teeth. In my dreams I feel a pleasant seasickness when he reaches for me and I can sleep all night in his arms.
The next week, Ancel is gone, away to sea with his divers. I can feel the imprint of his kiss against my forehead.
* * *
The day after Ancel left for sea, I woke to find the world made dank and steamy by overnight rain. The air is hot and dense. I watched Regina at her morning chores, shifting pots and kettles, laying out dishes and cutlery. Regina has finer features and much paler skin than the Aborigines I’ve seen in town. ‘Two coffee one milk that one,’ Ancel had laughed once. Regina’s last name is the same as one of the wealthier pearlers in town. Perhaps that defiant appropriation of a name is an act of rebellion, the last stand of those who have nothing else they can claim. You did this. This is yours. Perhaps it is the only thing left behind by these men, whose real lives with women were far away. A name adopted out of sentiment, resentment, something owed? I don’t know. Regina looks up at me from the table. Perhaps she feels sorry for me, because she gestures towards the coast. ‘You should go up beach. Castle Beach, not Town Beach.’ I look startled and she nods her head. ‘Better for swimming.’
* * *
In our enormous bedroom, I pull my swimming costume from my steamer trunk. I like the tight snap of elastic against the skin. I walk across the lawn to Tora’s house, the heat from the ground rising against my legs, and knock on the tin wall. There is no door, only a dark cloth curtain, and I can hear the rise of voices. Three small faces peer at me through the doorway, their mother behind them, the baby hoisted on her hip.
‘I’m going to Castle Beach. Swimming,’ I say slowly, unsure of how much she understands. ‘It’s so hot. I’m going to drive in Ancel’s car. Would you and the children like to come? To the beach?’
The children chatter excitedly, speaking to their mother in Japanese, pulling on her dress. Behind them I can see the lines of a faded wicker settee, no doubt discarded from Ancel’s veranda. I wonder, suddenly, what strange thing this is that I’ve asked of her. She stares at me. ‘Yes please. We would like to very much.’
In the car we offer each other our names. She is Yaie, the children Mie and Tadeo and Eki, the baby Haruko. Mie leans forward over the seat and whispers to her mother. Yaie laughs. ‘She says you have a beautiful voice. Like a bird.’
The sea is a field of light. The water is thrillingly cold and the children shriek, the water flashing up around their legs. They take my hands in the shallows and I swirl them around in the water, laughing, their wet hair plastered to their faces. The sand is a strip of white against the mangrove trees, the ocean stretching away in a blue shimmer. I make a tunnel of shade around my eyes and stare out at the place where the sea meets the sky. Somewhere out there are my husband and Yaie’s, one above the water, one deep beneath.
We sit in the cool sand at the bottom on the dunes, drinking green tea from a tin flask Yaie has brought and watching the children’s dark heads bent close together over something in the sand. The day is calm and warm and bleached with light. Yaie’s small hands rest neatly upon the sand. She is pale and beautiful, with thick, dark hair. She tells me about the places she comes from. The provincial town, then the city.
Taiji. Kyoto. Nagasaki. I roll them around on my tongue, like words of poetry. There’s no way to make the map of the world slide into place. On the way home we drive past a work gang of Aboriginal prisoners, chained together at the neck. They are spreading the white shell-grit that lines Broome’s roads and they are covered with fine white dust. In the liquid afternoon light they look like ghosts.
* * *
In the dry heat, the corrugated iron roof and walls of Yaie’s shed make it uninhabitable. After the fifth day of windless heat, I ask Yaie and the children to come and stay in the house with me. Yaie frowns, her dark eyebrows drawing together. Everything about her suggests fineness, poise. ‘Your husband would not like this.’
‘Ancel is not here. It is my house.’
Regina watches us, her eyes wide, as the children file into the cool dimness of the bungalow.
* * *
That summer the house was full of the high rise and fall of voices, the clatter of doors, the low hum of Regina’s singing voice. Yaie carries in trays of tea made from blossoms, we eat dinner on the veranda, the sky wavering between light and rain and galahs criss-crossing the darkening fringe of trees. Regina and Mary sit on the floor with their legs tucked up under their skirts, heads resting on their thighs. Mie falls asleep with her head on my lap, her smooth, hot arms flung around my waist.
In the evenings after the children are in bed, Yaie offers her ancestors to me. The strong, kind father, ‘like a rock’, who would weep over a beautiful haiku. The generations of pearl divers in her family, and Tora’s, disappearing into the black seas of Taiji. Whale hunters, her mother’s small feet, the world obliterated by snow. ‘In some parts of Japan,’ Yaie tells me, ‘pearl shell is shaved until it is transparent and used as window panes.’ I imagine the world misted in a pearly glow.
Yaie’s stories are not all memories. In the cicada-filled stillness of the nights she navigates the history of Broome for me. Not Ancel’s Broome, but the terrible world of the divers, the desperation of villages abandoned, families left behind. She tells me about the blackbirders, who kidnap Aboriginal men from the islands up north and force them beneath the sea.
When we go swimming, I hold my breath underwater, feeling the deep glassy pressure of the sea. At night, I dream of bodies floating through water, an ocean bed glowing with white skulls, the fish slipping through the eyes, out the mouths.
* * *
Yaie was my education. In the half-light of those tropical nights, she tells me stories about the pearl divers. Not Ancel’s brilliantly spun mythologies, but the real stories behind their lives out there on the pearling luggers. I watch her as she speaks; the fine bones, the planes of lamplight on her face, her fingers tap-tapping to the music from a distant piano. Yaie’s stories are rooms into which one can step. The fog of the deep sea, the burning lungs, the wrenching pain of the bends. She talks about diseases that give men the terrible look of ghosts, the lead weights draped around the chest, the bubbles of nitrogen in the blood, the lifelines snagged on coral reefs.
She slips unconsciously into Japanese sometimes when she is tired, her voice split between two languages. She taught herself English her first year here, from books and the radio. ‘I knew,’ said Yaie, ‘that if I did not learn the language, I would be lost.’ She tells me about Tora’s first season. Skimming the seabed he found a brass diving helmet in the sand. Such things were valuable; they could be sold when things were quiet, for their metal, or their curiosity. It was only as he turned it to look for identifying marks and the helmet’s glass face came towards him that he saw what he had found. A bleach-white skull stared back at him. Only instinct prevented him losing his air in a silent scream; that would have been the end of him, too. Yaie said he refused to dive for three days. But the next week he was back in the sea. ‘To warrior husbands,’ Yaie says, holding up her glass.
Ancel is not a warrior. I think of his hands at the back of my neck, fastening a strand of pearls, the weight of them like a brief caress. Ancel does not toil or spin. He talks about his fondness for his divers, but he keeps them under the ocean. A man who does not even cut the grass of his own lawn.
The truth of the world beneath the surface of our life here in Broome seeped slowly into my consciousness. Every day I heard more of its hidden chords.
While I drowsed in the radiant light on Ancel’s porch, divers suffocated in the black embrace of the ocean. While I lay under swathes of netting in a cool room, hundreds crammed the damp crawlspaces of overcrowded boats. Rats and lice gouged at their flesh, briny water lapped at their feet as they slept, fresh water was measured out in tiny tin cups. They died from fever, from shark attacks, from scurvy and beriberi. While I was living in a pearler’s bungalow, playing the piano and reading poetry, men were being forced down under the water for hours. Once, I learned, the head of a diver was so swollen that the helmet had to be split open with hammer and chisel. An Aboriginal woman was hung by her hands all night in the rigging because she refused to dive. Every day divers held their breath too long, rising to the surface as bloated corpses. Their bodies thrown back into the sea or buried in earth that would not remember them.
Even now, all these years later, the stones of that history weigh heavily on me.
* * *
Ancel sends letters back to shore. I imagine him sitting in his sea-enclosed cabin, staring out at the blueness beyond him, his handsome face grown deep brown from the sun. He writes of the unusual calm of the ocean, of the whale and her calf that have been following the boats for days, the rich haul of pearls. I sprawl on the couch and hold the onion-skin pages between my fingers and try to love my seafaring husband.
We are a loose constellation of stars circling in Ancel’s house. There is some kind of unspoken pact between us, and we move among each other gently – Regina, laughing shyly, her hand covering her mouth; Mary washing her hair from a pitcher on the dry lawn; Yaie on the veranda watching the storm filling up the darkness with light. What would Ancel have thought of this tableau, this house full of women and children?
* * *
I will always remember the violence of that late summer day Ancel returned to us – the stillness of the morning, the wavering heat, the dry crackle of thunder in the distance; how he filled the door frame, his face strange; his blank words to Yaie; Regina’s wail; Yaie running across the lawn, sinking to her knees as if undone; her scream, so removed from the soft-speaking voice that had whispered stories to me every night that summer. She is now separate from all of us, her body shuddering on the grass.
Ancel speaks slowly, reasonably. ‘It comes with the territory. They know, they know the risks. She will be provided for.’ I stare at him in horror. My husband. I sit very still at the kitchen table, listening to his feet along the hallway, the heavy tread of his boots down the front steps. I sit there for a long time, the world frozen around me. I had seen Yaie’s eyes, her naked eyes staring at me.
Did Tora move towards his death with the same serene detachment I saw in him in life? Or was there fury? His death has unbalanced me. Yaie has left us to our world, will not let anything approach her, the curtain pinned firmly across the doorway of her shed. There is only silence from within. I think of Tora holding onto the last sliver of light from above, the roar of the ocean in his ears.
When I stand above the high slope of the ocean, staring down at the blue beyond the mangroves, I imagine bones washing up on the gravel beach below; long, curved fragments of white washing up with the tide, the coarse sand gleaming with polished debris, a terrible silence. I stand above the ocean in this young frontier town and feel the grief of the sea.
* * *
The day that Yaie left Broome with the children to return Japan I went into Ancel’s study and opened the small safe under his desk. There were no banks in Broome; the takings, from the season’s haul of pearls, were there. I took out the thick piles of banknotes, stacked them in my sewing bag and walked across the garden to Yaie’s shed.
She was sitting in a chair by the window, wearing a green wrap, her hair in a thick plait. I could hear the clatter of birds on the tin roof. For a while we said nothing but watched the shadows on the poinciana outside the small window. I placed the sewing bag on the small table between us. ‘This is yours.’
Yaie looked inside the bag. She seemed deep in thought then she leaned forward and looked at me earnestly, clutching my hand. ‘How long can the spirit live without the body?’
At the train station, she put her small hands on my cheeks for a long moment. I could feel her beating heart. As the train clattered into life, she raised her hand to me and nodded her head. If I met her now on the road, would I recognise her face?
These years later, living by a different ocean, their faces come to me. Ancel, Yaie, Tora, Regina, all the lost pearl divers. They are like warm stones of history and I carry them with me, into the future.
The day that I left Broome, I cycled down to Castle Beach early in the morning, down the dusty street Ancel and I had travelled that first day. Beneath the spine of the dunes the water is clear and still. When my head breaks the surface, my burning lungs gasp in all the air above the seas.