Bridget Chianta 2021

Nine Days creative response: Connie, 1940

The morning air is heavy. I’m up crack-of-dawn early despite it being a Sunday, but you know what they say, and I’m still here to get the worm. Soon will come the intrusion of the factory’s horns blaring, and the smoke from people’s chimneys as they desperately try to escape another unpredictable spring morning chill. Ma always says the forecasts oughtn’t be trusted.

I peg up the still too yellow sheets that finished soaking throughout the night, becoming more and more aware of the increasingly damp feeling under my toes as my slippers sit in the dewy grass that has won against the pavement and is defiantly sprouting through the cracks. If I’m not quick with my hands, I know I’ll be interrupted by Kip thumping out back to look for company in the solitude of the early morning. That boy refuses his lungs a breath when he starts on the prattle. Ma will have a fit if I don’t finish putting out the washing before she’s up. It’s silly really, to act like there’s a sun out that can run off into the evening - no, this morning she’s under a thick swamp of grey. The nape of my neck prickles.

Right on cue, Kip comes tramping out, his brown mop of hair a mess no doubt from his unsightly sleeping habits and his total disregard for appearances since that stuck-up school gave him the boot. I eye him as he inhales and finally exhales much more dramatically than needed, standing satisfied with his calloused hands resting on his hips as if everyone in Richmond has been waiting for him. My fingers slide up the last sheet and pinch the tatty corner to place the peg.

“Charlie oughta be grinning with his rugs on right now,” Kip chirps, and I turn around, stiffly bending to pick up the laundry basket, a faded cane that’s seen a few too many wet linens in its day and drop it by the bowing door behind him. “Bet if he could talk he’d be right over to say ‘Kip! Thanks for keepin’ me snug, you’re the best bloke from here to the top of Cape York.’”

I slide my hands down the front of my apron to straighten the creases, thinking of what Mrs Keith would’ve once said about being lady-like, then cross my arms as I lean against the wall.

“And what about the wild brumbies, with no Kips to put on their rugs?” I entertain him. He starts plodding around the backyard in his bare feet, taking gaping steps to stay on the uneven pavement stones. The dear boy can’t stand but to talk and talk to whoever will listen – even sleep doesn’t stop his tongue from tripping over itself. Some nights I hear him going on about who knows what through the thin walls when I lie my head right against the timber. It’s a wonder how he has all that go in the morning. It’s a comfort, though, ever since the dull sobs stopped, Ma’s been a dead silent sleeper. I can’t stand that silence.

“Mr Husting told me that brumbies are used to it all,” he remarks. “They can take the sun, the snow, no problem - but there’s no way no brumby could ever match up to Charlie boy. He’s the smartest horse in the universe, I just give him a hand because that’s what friends do. And well, horses don’t have any hands of course. But did you know they measure horses in hands? A silly thing, I always reckon’d.”

“Could be easier than feet, I suppose,” I reply, imagining a man on a station out west, far from the city, holding his leather clad foot up to his gelding’s withers. “Logistically.”

Kip stops with his feet a width apart on two pavement stones and looks me square in the face, furrowed brow and twisted nose. Then he’s off again without a word, on his quest back and forth across the small yard as if it’s going to get him somewhere, a faint notion most people around Rowena Parade hold onto. This time he stops at the far end, next to the vegetable patch.

“Potatoes are an odd vegetable,” he comments, leaning down next to the patch of dirt speckled with rubbish that the breeze blows in from the street. I used to try to keep it tidy, but somehow the plants still grow happily enough, despite the invasion. Well, they’ve never complained to me.
“I suppose. Don’t dirty your pants,” I leave the comfort of the wall I’m leaning on and unfurl my interlaced arms to grasp the boy’s collar and pull him up from the weed strewn ground next to the vegetable patch. Little boys have no sense of these things, though a boy like Francis has far too much stiff sense for his age.

“I’m not,” he huffs, standing and peering down to face his faulty statement as I hold his shoulder and lean down. “And why are you wearing your nice pants?” I brush down his knees with a condemning frown that reminds me too much of Ma, the grey worsted wool now stained with the moist soil. There’s been no occasion for them since the funeral, and they’re an inch too short at the ankles. “I’ll have to soak them. Go change into new ones and bring these here.”

“Mr Ward is coming for tea this morning, Ma says,” he responds, lightly shooing me away from his knees. “She said to put on me nice pants. I told her they’re only s’posed to be for church and is Mr Ward as important as church? I think God’d be buggered looking down at that.”

“Go on, Kip,” I disregard him, nodding my head in the direction of the weathered back door. He sighs and plods off into the house. It’s three quarters of an hour too early for that boy, much too keen for a yarn. I’ve always thought he’d do wonders working at the ABC. He has a thing about getting people thinking, but I suppose they don’t want too much of that around here. Every bloke and woman with a thing to live for would be running for the hills.

He returns not a moment later in fresh russet pants, handing me the dirty ones with an unembellished expression and a creeping red to his cheek. “Ma says can you pick some of them potatoes for a mash.”

And then he’s off inside again.

Kip has not a thought in his head about why Ma would have him put on his church pants for the presence of Mr Ward in our house. It’s a mystery to me as to why she’d make us go the extra mile to put up such a front when the man will be walking over the whining, uneven floorboards, and sitting in the kitchen with the peeling wall behind the stove stained with grease from last summer when Kip and Francis attempted to fry the bacon themselves. Whatever it is she’s trying to hide will be plainly clear, unless the man’s blind.

I get to soaking the pants, filling the trough below the washing line, reaching my hands in as goosebumps glide up my arms at the cool sensation. The natural murk of the trough and the reflection of the overcast sky in the water parade a grey across my eyes, a colour similar to the one that crowns the hairline of Mr Ward. On my first day at the Argus, the man spared no expense at my welcoming. I remember his comment on my skirts, how lovely they were, the colour of roasted barley, and I couldn’t help but wonder what a widower with two boys could possibly know about frills or pleats.

After that there’s not been one day since that I haven’t been met with a greasy compliment, which in return receives a cautious smile usually reserved for those men on Bridge Road who I pass on their way home from the tannery in the evening. When I walked once with another girl from the Argus, Rose, she met their eyes with hers, brown as the Yarra, and let the flow of blood flush her cheeks pink like the river spills into the bay. I couldn’t for the life of me understand it.

I bow to tend the garden, first plucking a couple of weeds amongst the vegetables, and then reaching for the rusted watering can. I lift my arm above my head as if I’m painting the sky, and the water sprinkles down like a sun shower. Oh, how they must love that. The leaves of my potatoes are no longer hidden under the slight grey of dust from the street but are shining emerald. I begin to dig them up with my garden fork, how misunderstood the poor things must feel. Not odd as Kip says, just waiting for the day they will be picked to see the light and be mashed or boiled, or even roasted like Ma used to do on Christmas Day. Dad’s favourite. I slide a few into the front pocket of my apron, spying the broom leaning on the back wall, tempting to steal me away for a moment more. All that’s held in the house right now is my best frock that will no doubt be laid out on the bed, the floral lace on the collar taken from my grandmother’s wedding dress, staring at me like all it desires is to leap up and trap me under the grey of this melancholy sky forever.

Then the broom is in my hand, the clouds a ballroom ceiling, a canvas of ancient gods with gold trimmings. Grasping the stick lightly with one hand and letting the other float to my chest, I curtsy to my companion as if I’m a duchess written into the pages of an old leatherbound novel. The wind blows, it guides a bow across an ebony instrument, the beginning B-sharp of a Strauss waltz. A step forwards, now another; then to the side, and again. A hand on the shoulder, a hand holding the blush pink of my dress, frills running up the sides and lace at the hems. An innocent twirl, a skip across to the other side of the room, the sparkle of a chandelier meeting my eyes as I circle once more.

“What on earth are you doing, girl?” The music stops. The broom drops on the ground. I’m standing in the backyard, alone. Ma is standing at the back door, arms crossed, head shaking. “Get inside – he’ll be here soon.”

I hurry across the pavement over to the house, a burn rising through my body to my cheeks.

“God forbid your mother’ed do a thing to set you up for life,” she grumbles in my ear as I walk past her. She keeps at it but I can’t hear a thing. My ears close up shop when she starts on her nagging.

I hang my apron, the back door slams with the breeze before it can be closed, and Ma ushers me inside. Kip is busy crouched at the furnace with small split logs of red gum, splinters on the floor. Francis sits at the kitchen table, book in hand, with a watchful eye on his brother. It’s obvious he wants to make comment on the mess he’s making on the newly swept floor, but holds his tongue, just for now, and brushes his neatly combed fringe out of his eyes. He looks sharp – that school keeps him that way. Kip on the other hand, you can tell with one look that Ma’s been at him all morning. Shirt almost perfectly ironed, but coming untucked at the waist.

In my room and the sun’s still yet to break through so it’s too dull to see the buttons on my dress, even with the faded mink grey curtains thrown open. It takes minutes too long and the last one is stubborn as Mr Macree on Tanner Street, but finally it’s pulled through and I’m dog-tired. To lay for a moment is a treat well appreciated, but when my eyelids close all they have on offer is that same drab monotony. No help to the sleepy, no home for the conscious, so here I’ll lay in this purgatory of my mind. Then Kip is in my ears.

“Ma, there’s someone here!”

Too early for our famed visitor but one can’t be too sure, so I straighten my creases and remove the hair fanned across my face. I hear Francis introducing himself, the gold in our box of bronze. In the doorway the boys stand blocking the caller, but I hear his voice.

“Lemons, from my mother. The tree in the backyard is weighed down with them.” It’s Jack Husting.

Not a moment lost and I’m in the doorway between the boys, the faintest of smiles prancing across my lips. “How thoughtful.”

The yellow of the lemons catch my eye and I’m almost stunned where I stand. They could be straight from the still-life of a fruit bowl but somehow the thick streaked citrine oils of a master could never compare. Not even a Van Gogh could capture the intense luminosity of these fruits held out before me. Leaning forward to take the basket, I now look up at the man who had the clear eyes of a boy when he used to be around.

“You must thank Mrs Husting for us. You can never have enough lemons,” I smile. He meets my eyes now and for the breath in my lungs I can’t look away. The now grey-blue strikes me speechless. Kip jabbers on but it’s in one ear and out the other because now I’m drowning in the ocean, bluest waves I’ve ever seen. Still, now, by some faithless prayer, I can breathe.

 

Written explanation:

I wrote my piece from the perspective of Connie in the year 1940. It is an extension of Jordan’s narrative, specifically Jack’s chapter, when he watches Connie dancing in her backyard with the broom. I thought this scene was really interesting in that it makes the reader wonder what is going on in Connie’s head; especially as at this point in the book we haven’t read from Connie’s perspective yet, and she is somewhat of a perplexing character. I took a lot of inspiration from the quote in Connie’s chapter, “We women do what’s expected. You can do almost anything you care to think of.” This line demonstrates the natural resistance she seems to have against the common themes Jordan narrates, such as the roles of a woman. I extended the use of this theme in my piece by showing an insight into Connie’s thoughts about the pressure on her to marry Mr Ward, as well as her aversion to following the expected cycle of life with quotes such as “I suppose they don’t want too much of that around here. Every bloke and woman with a thing to live for would be running for the hills.” Jordan uses little dialogue in her writing, focusing mostly on inner thoughts, which I tried to replicate by having Connie use personal anecdotes and keeping her thoughts as fluent and dynamic as possible. I feel like I was successful in capturing a similar voice of Connie in her own head, but something I could work on is the use of implicit meaning behind the text such as Jordan does. I attempted to express many of Connie’s true thoughts through metaphors such as the overwhelming greyness in her life while thinking about Mr Ward, and then contrasting this with the bright lemons Jack brings over, as well as his striking blue eyes. I think this metaphor in particular was able to convey Connie’s feelings, however, I could have used other symbolism and figurative language to make my piece that little bit more authentic to Jordan’s voice.

 

Bridget Chianta