Promises and Lies
On a whim and a promise from strangers Alice said goodbye to her Mother and followed her husband to a country on the other side of the globe. She waved until her arms ached, treasuring the last glimpses of her mother quayside, her arms linked to Alice’s sisters, her chin out and her head held high.
Tomorrow the SS Orcades would dock in Fremantle.
Through the porthole the ocean shone iridescent velvet, calm and spent. After days of bracing herself at every step, Alice was grateful for the respite. The baby had finally settled and the two boys were snoring softly in a tangle of blanket on their shared bunk. The last five weeks had tested her patience and resilience. Allowing her strength to weaken just a little, she flopped onto her bunk and reached under the pillow for the letter she knew by heart. Tonight the letter shook as she unfolded it.
“My Dearest, Darling Alice,
I cannot tell you how much I miss you. I pray this letter reaches you before you embark. You must not come here Alice. This place is neither for you nor the children. They lied to us. They lied, and I have become a weary, sorry man. Do you remember the posters? The ones with the fat cows and healthy horses feeding in green pastures? Ready-made farms, they promised us. All those posters are good for is decorating the walls of our tiny tin shed they call a humpy out here. On good days I look at them and imagine they are windows and I am looking out onto our farm.
But I see only dirt and ever more trees to be cleared. This is a place of extraordinary hard work and little reward. Do not follow me out here Alice. I despair for the pride you have in clean clothes and a clean home. I despair for your soft English skin and the roses that will fade from your cheeks. I fear the hopelessness and hatred in your blue eyes. Here I wash in a kerosene tin. There are snakes and flies and sand, and the water still not connected to our block. Our cow ran away, I reckon there is not enough food here to keep her going.
Jack has called in on his way back from a meeting with the folk around us. He says they have plans for a new school and new houses as soon as we can get the blocks cleared. And there’s talk about a dance when the schoolhouse is finished. Somewhere for you to wear your nice dress. One day we can build a real house. We won’t know ourselves, toffs in this place with a house of our own. The Marshes down the road have only been here two years and they have a four-room house just finished. Four rooms, imagine. Your Mum would be proud then.
Jack has promised to post this letter on his trip into town tomorrow. He is a good bloke. He said he would help me build an outhouse of our own before you come.
Don’t listen to me Alice, I am just kidding myself with this talk of houses and the like. Don’t come my darling. You don’t belong here. This land will take you before your time.
Take care and kiss the children for me.
Your beloved Bob.”
A black and white metal sign swung by one nail on the wall above the door. Alice had to turn her head sideways to read it. ‘Welcome to Western Australia’. The area beyond was filled with chattering faceless people, the ones at the back standing on tip toe to get a glimpse of the new arrivals. The tired baby was a dead weight on her hip. Behind her the boys were playing chasey with some of the other children, trailing their jackets in the dust on the timber floor. Two men stood behind packing cases at the front of the crowd. They were idly checking and stamping passports. Occasionally they asked to see inside cases. One had an unlit cigarette glued to his bottom lip. Alice wondered if it got in the way when he ate.
Despite the Fremantle Doctor, which was making an early house call, men had their hats off fanning their faces, and women were pulling at dresses clinging in unladylike fashion to their damp bodies. Small red-faced children clung onto trousers and skirts with hot chubby hands, their eyes wide.
Through the door with the lopsided sign at last, Alice blinked at the sudden intrusion of light. Large sections of glass in the otherwise tin roof gave free rein to the midday sun. She bent and gathered the boys to her, struck by the realisation that there was no going back. Kissing their heads and sitting them on their suitcases, she placed the baby on the other hip and stood as straight as that allowed, her head high and her chin out.
“Over here Alice. I’m here. I’m here. I thought I would be very late. You came. I didn’t dare hope, and then I got the telegram. I am so sorry I have no flowers. I wanted to bring flowers. Oh Alice are you sure? We have to travel in the back of Jack’s truck, I couldn’t get enough together for train tickets, and even if I could we would have to walk more than a mile to the block. Look at me, I had to push the truck out of the mud, I wanted at least to meet you in a clean suit. Oh my boys, my boys. And Sarah, she has your eyes. Alice, are you really sure?”
“Bob. Stop. Take us to our new home. I can manage a kerosene tin.”