The hills are full of Irish people. When their grandfathers and great-grandfathers arrived in Sydney they went naturally to Shanty Town, not because they were dirty or lazy, though many of them were that, but because they were poor. And wherever there are poor you will find landlords who build tenements: cramming two on a piece of land no bigger than a pocket handkerchief, and letting them for the rent of four. In the squalid, mazy streets of sandstone double-decker houses, each with its little balcony edged with rusty iron lace, and its door opening on to the street, or four square feet of 'front', every second name is an Irish one. There are Brodies, and Caseys and Murphys and O'Briens, and down by the corner are Casement and Grogan and Kell, and, although here and there you find a Simich, or a Siciliano, or a Jewish shopkeeper, or a Chinese laundryman, most are Irish.
Even the names of the streets tell the story of those old emigrants who came looking for roads cobbled with gold, and found them made of stone harder than an overseer's heart. There is Fahy Street running off Riley Street, and both of them branching from Coronation Street, which had the name of Kelleher before they changed it to honour Queen Victoria. And there is Ryan Street running down into Redfern, and Brophy Street, mean and horrible, flowing into Elizabeth Street, which leads to the city.
This was the place where the Darcys lived - Plymouth Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, in an unlucky house which the landlord had renumbered from Thirteen to Twelve-and-a-Half.
It was the oldest in Plymouth Street, a cranky brown house, with a blistered green door, and a step worn into dimples and hollows that collected the rain in little pools in which Roie and Dolour, when little, had always expected to find frogs.
There were many houses like Number Twelve-and-a-Half, smelling of leaking gas, and rats, and mouldering wallpaper which has soaked up the odours of a thousand meals. The stairs were very dark and steep, and built on a slant as though the architect were drunk, so that from the top landing you couldn't see the bottom. On the top landing hung a little globe, very high up, so that the tenants could not steal it. It was as small as a star and as yellow as a lemon.
Downstairs there was a dark bedroom without windows or skylight, a kitchen with a broken floor, and a scullery with one window overlooking the flagged yard, where a drunken garbage can stood with its lid over one ear. Upstairs were three cramped attic bedrooms. Hughie and Mumma had slept in one of these for a long time, but it had a sloping roof, so that anybody bouncing hastily out of the left-hand side of the bed hit himself a terrific blow on top of the head, and fell prostrate again. Hughie had done this a thousand times, both drunk and sober, and it was the main cause of his frequent absence from work; as he pointed out to Mumma, by the time he'd shaken his brains back into their proper place it was past the hour and no use going to work at all, seeing that a man was fined for every minute he was late. He had promised himself time and time again that he'd move the bed, but somehow it never got done, for it meant rearranging all the furniture, and that would take a full afternoon of time. He could not afford that, for Saturday afternoon he always spent at the pub, and Sunday afternoon he spent sleeping off Saturday afternoon.
So the simplest thing was to move the children into the attic, while he and Mumma took the dark bedroom downstairs.
Once Roie and Dolour had had a little brother, Thady. When he was six, and Roie nine, and Dolour two, he had been sent out on to the footpath to play, for the backyard was too small and dirty and sunless. And he had just disappeared. Nothing was ever heard of him again. No one had seen a man or woman leading him off, or a car carry him away. There was just a little box cart left lying on the roadway, and that was all. Hughie had rampaged round the streets and through the alleyways like a madman; he had accompanied the police as they patrolled the sewers. Grim-lipped and devil-faced, he had sworn that God and he would never be friends while the agony and mystery of Thady's disappearance hung over them.
But Mumma had never given up hope. She often stood at the gates of boys' schools, looking and looking, adding the slow years to Thady's stature, and maturity to his little round face. It was ten years since he had disappeared. Dolour did not remember him at all, and Roie only a little, but he was a living presence in that house. He was like a ghost who is not dead.
In the other attic rooms, which Mumma let, furnished, for seven and sixpence a week each, lived Mr. Patrick Diamond and Miss Sheily. Mr Diamond was a real Irishman, born in Ireland, an Orangeman who was friendly with Hughie and liked all the Darcys except on St Patrick's Day, when his Orange blood boiled up, and he called them all pope-worshippers and mummers, and stamped upstairs and slammed the door, and banged on the wall if Roie or Dolour gave as much as a squeak. He had been christened Patrick in error by a gin-bemused neighbour, and all his life it had been a cross to him and a confusion to his friends. But his pride and his stubbornness forbade his changing it to William or James, much as he would have liked to.
Miss Sheily was a tiny thin woman, as bitter as a draught of alum water, with a parchment face and subtle black eyes. She had been well educated, and consequently Mumma always felt a little shy of her. Hughie tended to become rumbustious, just to prove that he was as good as she was, and a damn sight better. But he liked her more than the others did. Roie and Dolour were a little bit frightened of her. It seemed to them that Miss Sheily, with her piercing eyes, and birdlike sophisticated voice, knew a world wider than theirs. It would not have surprised them if she had one day thrown open her attic window and darted out on a broom, over the narrow canyon of Plymouth Street, and into the maze of alleyways which makes up the Hills. '
The funny thing about Miss Sheily was that nobody knew her Christian name, or had even seen her initial. When she left a note pinned to the door for the iceman or the butcher's boy, she always signed it 'Miss Sheily'. Roie and Dolour and Mumma often had guessing competitions about Miss Sheily's name, but nobody had ever proved her guess correct. Dolour thought that Agnes or Amy was most likely, and Roie said scornfully that Belle or Grace was right up Miss Sheily's alley, seeing that neither fitted. But Mumma, with the stubborn and unpredictable romanticism that she sometimes displayed, voted for Stella.
'Oh, Mumma! Fancy Stella!' cried Roie. 'Why the dickens should she have a name like that?'
'Because she's a lady,' said Mumma obstinately. And, although both Roie and Dolour, as well as the rest of Plymouth Street, knew that this could not possibly be so, they did not dare say anything, for Mumma hated the mere mention of illegitimacy. So they could, not quote Johnny as an argument against Miss Sheily's ladyhood.
For Johnny Sheily, the poor unfortunate with his crooked back and great square box of a head, was Miss Sheily's son, and she did not make the slightest attempt to hide it.
'Johnny!' she would scream down the stairs. 'Johnny, where are you?' and to Mr Diamond, who might emerge across the landing just then, 'Have you seen that great lump of a son of mine, Mr Diamond?'
Johnny, sitting beneath the mangy-leaved phoenix palm in the backyard and gently moving some incomprehensible cipher of pebbles back and forth in the dirt, would raise his buttermilk blue eyes and call back: 'Ike ummin, Umma', for his tongue, like the rest of him, was twisted.
Roie was one of those who cannot bear to see the deformed. The dark little currant eyes of an idiot, his chinless face, and thick neck and bowed legs, was enough to fill her day with horror, though she saw him but passingly from a tram. And every day she walked a quarter of a mile out of her path so that she would not have to pass a certain doorway where an old legless man with blind milky eyes sat in the sun.
She tried to conquer this, for it was against the principles which had been instilled in her soul from the time she began to speak. Mumma had always said: 'God has struck them as the wild lightning strikes a tree, and no one knows why.' And she had said: 'It might be you with the hare-lip, or the nose like a strawberry, and if ever I catch you calling names or hurting the feelings of the misfortunate, I'll beat the bottom off you.'
So when Roie shrank from Johnny Sheily, or turned away her face when he mumbled some mysterious greeting, she committed a double sin, that of uncharity and that of pride. For almost unconsciously her hand would go up to her own small slender face, and trace the contours of slanting eyes and soft chin, and the little delicate mouth that had its outline slightly raised as though it were in relief. It was almost as though, with that very gesture, her hand said: 'Thank God that I am not as you. Realizing this, she was always trying to atone, offering Masses for poor Johnny Sheily, and forcing herself to look in his bleary eye and smile as she passed.
But Mumma loved him in her own acidulous, contrary way, and never once did she hear Miss Sheily beating him that she did not shed a tear of mingled grief and rage.
Johnny was often naughty, for all that he was twenty or more, for his poor bewildered brain, that saw a sparrow as big as a goose, and peopled the air around him with butterflies and other things that needed to be snatched at, and caught, did not take in every word he heard, and consequently he was always doing the wrong thing, and being walloped for it.
'The woman hates 'him, it's my solemn belief,' said Mumma one day, staring at the ceiling, her cup of tea growing cold and curdly on the table.
Hughie laughed, 'Hate her own child? What are you talking about?'
Mumma shook her head. 'It's possible, Hughie. He's the cause of her shame, and she blames him for it.'
'Better blame herself for getting all hot and bothered when she didn't ought to,' chuckled Hughie coarsely. Mumma flushed.
'Shut yer big trap,' she snapped, and Hughie laughed uproariously and put his arms round her wide waist and mumbled in her ear. She brought the side of her hand in a sharp chop across the back of his neck.
'You're a dirty old man, Hughie, and that's a fact.'
'I'm not, now. I'm neither dirty nor old. I'm just a man,' protested Hughie. Mumma opened her mouth to retort, but almost instantly the whimpering wails of Johnny upstairs broke into shrill shrieks.
'She's murdering him, the old hag, that's what she's doing,' cried Hughie. His eyes blazed, and he burst through the doorway and pounded up the stairs. There in the darkness he stood, hammering on Miss Sheily's door and yelling to her to open up. Mumma pounded after him, protesting, for in the live and let live law of the slums there is a clause that nobody shall interfere in anybody else's fight.
'Open the door or I'll kick it in,' yelled Hughie, the brilliant white light of the crusader filling his heart. There was a split second's wait, and then Mumma quietly tried the door. It was not locked. Hughie burst in, and Mumma caught a glimpse of Miss Sheily's room, its streaky blue kalsomined walls, the sloping ceiling stuck with pictures, and the gas ring flaring yellow and smoky in one dim corner. The air was thick with the fumes of burnt fat, stale food, and old unwashed clothing. On the floor was a litter of scraps of paper and crumbs of food that had been trodden flat into the grease and dirt.
And there against a wall was Johnny, his hands tied around a disused gas jet. As soon as Mumma saw his grotesque figure she gave a shriek and her anger surpassed Hughie's.
'Why, you old Borgia,' she cried. 'Tying the poor kid up to slam the daylights out of him.'
Beside Johnny Miss Sheily stood trembling, thin as a piece of wire, her drooping black skirt hardly hiding the bones which stood fragilely' beneath it. In her hand was a piece of knotted electric flex. Her white face was a smudge under the dim light which filtered from the skylight, but Mumma could easily see the hatred and passion which glared from it. It was almost as though Miss Sheily were as transparent as a light globe, and the very force of her bitter spirit illuminated her.
'Get out of here,' she spat. 'What do you mean by it? By God, if it's the last thing I do I'll see you in gaol for this. It's forced entry, that's what it is.'
'What have you done to the poor little devil?' groaned Mumma, her fingers running over Johnny's bare back, wet with oozing serum from a dozen wounds. He sluggishly turned his head, and his bristly hair brushed her face. His pale blue eyes had an opaque opal sheen in the dimness.
'The Red Cross'll hear about this,' promised Hughie. 'Yeah, and the R.S.P.C.A., too. You can talk about putting other people in boob, you old vulture.'
And, indeed, Miss Sheily did look like a vulture standing there quaking with temper, her long white nose curved downwards and her blue lips as thin and bitter as a snake's. Out of those lips came no words, only shrill birdlike sounds that spoke as no words could of the maelstrom of loathing in her soul. Mumma gave a yank with her strong hands and broke the bootlaces which linked Johnny's hands over the gas jet. He stood there giggling under his breath, his great oblong head cocked over one shoulder and his long arms dangling like an ape's.
'You should be black ashamed, Miss Sheily,' said Mumma.
Miss Sheily's fury lapped over as a river in flood brims its banks. She began to speak in a high, hoarse voice upon which her refined accent sat grotesquely. 'I'm sick of him! I'm sick of the look of him!'
Mumma put her arm around Johnny. His shoulders were so broad that her fingers barely grasped his other arm.
'It's not his fault he's a cripple. And you shouldn't be reminding him of it,' she reproached.
Hughie had a mindful of scintillating sentences which he could not wait to utter, but every time he opened his mouth one of the women took advantage of the moment and spoke in his place.
Miss Sheily's eyes blazed so much they were like the eyes of a mad woman. 'I hate the way he looks. Every time I realize he's my child I could cut my throat.'
'Easy to do,' cried Hughie hurriedly, before anyone could snatch the moment from him. 'Easier to do than lashing the hide off him.'
'Hating your own child,' said Mumma, shocked to her heart and yet exultant, because she had suspected it all along. 'You shouldn't ever have had a child.'
'I didn't want him,' screamed Miss Sheily. 'I tried every way I knew to get rid of him before he was born. And then when he came he was like this, a monster. I hate him. I hate him!'
'Why don't you put him in an orphanage, then?' said Hughie.
Miss Sheily answered sulkily, 'I don't want to.'
'No,' said Hughie astutely; 'and you can get a pretty big pension for him, can't you, so that you needn't go to work. Oh, no, you're quite the lady. You may as well say that Johnny's hump is working for you, Miss Sheily.'
He laughed uproariously. Already he was tasting the applause of the boys at the pub as they listened open-mouthed to his recountal of the story. To Miss Sheily his wide mouth and little screwed-up eyes looked like the mask of a devil. She lashed out with the flex, but before the blow fell Hughie grabbed her thin arm, as dry and mummified as that of a skeleton, and warded it off.
'Oan urt umma,' croaked Johnny, throwing himself upon Hughie. His great weight thrust the man off his balance, and Hughie rolled in the dirt with Johnny on top of him. But the boy had no strength, and squatted there with tears bubbling out of his eyes in a stream, his blubbery mouth pursed in a ludicrous parody of a child's.
'Ah, God in heaven,' said Hughie in disgust, scrambling up and thrusting his face close to Miss Sheily's paper-white one, 'if I hear one more yell from this room I'll report to the cops as sure as God's up there.'
He pointed a dramatic finger at the ceiling and stumped out of the room. Mumma hovered a moment, then followed him.
That night, in the silence Roie and Dolour, lying cold and uncomfortable in their bed next door, heard Miss Sheily crying faraway, hiccuping sobs which told them she had her head buried in a pillow. And then there was a muffled bellow from Johnny, and sharp sentences from his mother in a voice which was nasal with tears. Dolour whispered:
'Crumbs, she's a funny old tart. I say, Ro, do you reckon Miss Sheily is really his mother?'
Roie was on the verge of sleep, caught between consciousness and unconsciousness; she replied in a voice which seemed to come from down a long corridor: 'I guess that's why she hates him so much.'
Dolour scoffed: 'But she couldn't have hated him when he was a little weeny baby, even if he was all bumpy and queer.'
'Imagine if Miss Sheily loved someone,' said Roie, her voice laden with sleep, but her mind clear and remote. 'Imagine if he threw her up when he found she was going to have a baby . . . and then she tried to get rid of it . . .'
'How can you get rid of a baby?' asked Dolour. The little clear voice coming out of the darkness made Roie feel ashamed. She remembered the shock and horror she had felt when she first learned about abortion. She said quickly: 'Oh, ways.'
'Oh,' said Dolour. They were quiet for a while. Beyond the violet-blue oblong of the window, rimmed with the blowing shadows of the ragged curtains, a flight of white stars slanted across the sky. Dolour said dreamily: 'Have you ever been in love, Roie?'
Immediately she was sorry, and the blood beat in her ears, for she knew she should not have asked, and she was frightened 'in case Roie rebuffed her stingingly, and hurt her feelings. But all Roie said was: 'No, never at all.'
'I wonder if girls feel about boys like they do about film stars?' asked Dolour shyly.
'I won't,' said Roie. 'It'll be all different.'
'How do you know?' asked Dolour curiously. She felt Roie's slim body move beside her, and felt the faint scent of her talcum powder. All of a sudden Roie wasn't her sister any more; she was in some queer way mysterious, like a strange woman. Dolour realized sinkingly that Roie was grown up and she was still a child. She wanted to ask some more questions, but it was no use, for Roie was asleep. Dolour sighed and turned over.
Next door Miss Sheily, her head feeling as through it were swollen and yet filled with a most malignant emptiness, buried her face in the lumpy, ill-smelling mattress and tried to shut out the sounds of the night; Johnny snuffling in his blankets near the window, Mrs Darcy rattling about washing supper dishes downstairs, Mr Diamond clumping on large bare feet down the stairs to the yard. She could also hear a tied-up dog howling, the vagrant song of a drunken man, and the distant rattle and clang of a homegoing tram.
As the darkness grew deeper the bugs came out of their cracks in the walls, from under the paper, and out of the cavities in the old iron bedsteads, where they hung by day in grape-like clusters. They were thin and flat and starved, but before the dawn they would return to their foul hiding-places round and glistening and bloated with blood, so fat they could hardly waddle.
Captain Phillip brought them in the rotten timbers of his First Fleet, and ever since they have remained in the old tenement houses of Sydney, ferocious, ineradicable, the haunters of the tormented sleep of the poor.