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Authors: Kate Furnivall

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BOOK: Diamonds in the Dust
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“Maya,” she said heavily, “we gotta get ourselves a lawyer. Not a shonky one neither, not one pissed as a maggot. One who knows how to talk good.”

The girl didn’t even break her stride, but her head sank lower on her narrow shoulders. Not a good sign.

“You got no money, I’m guessing,” Hatti said.

Maya flicked her gaze to Hatti’s face.

“Don’t look at me like that, girl. My pockets are empty too.”

Abruptly Maya came to a halt and crouched in front of her. “What happen to us now?”

“Well, I reckon that they’ll let us stew in here tonight and then in the morning they’ll haul us into court and some Mr. Nobody Lawyer will speak a few words for us. But before you know it, they’ll stick us in a van and it’s six months in prison for us.”

“No!”

The word jerked out of the young girl as a thin wail of terror that made the hairs rise on the back of Hatti’s neck. She reached out and softly stroked the dark head in front of her, the way she would a nervous pup.

“Hush now, no need for that. You have to see their point of view, Maya. We’re bound to be made examples of. They’ll want to show others what happens to dirty scum looters.” She gave a grim laugh. “We’re lucky they don’t just go ahead and shoot us.”

“No!”

“I’m only kidding.”

“Why they not believe you? You white.”

“White don’t get you everything in this world, Maya. You can be as sure of that as you can be of death.”

The dark eyes grew muddy and the small chin drooped. “I seen too much death.”

It was like an electric shock, the pain that kicked at Hatti’s heart. She felt her blood thicken, too stiff to push its way through her veins. A loud whumping noise started up in her ears, like somebody banging a drum in a tunnel. She closed her eyes and her fingers blindly touched the soft strands of dark hair.


Mem
be mad at me. I never tell.”

“Don’t call me
mem
.”

“No. The other
mem.

“What?”

“You sick?” Maya asked in a concerned voice.

“No. What other
mem
?”


Mem
Hadley.”

“Who is this
Mem
Hadley?”

“My friend. She know people.”

Hatti sat up. “Why the bloody hell didn’t you say so before?”

“Because she be mad at me if she find out.” She hesitated and gave Hatti a sneaky sideways look. “I promise her I be good in Darwin.”

Hatti grunted. “This
mem
of yours doesn’t need to know anything about the ‘I taking’ stuff you said. Don’t worry, I won’t tell her.”

The girl’s mouth grew soft. She swallowed and looked down at her feet. Hatti studied her in silence. Like that, was it? Not used to kindness from strangers.
Well, you aren’t the only one, girl.

“So.” Hatti rose to her feet and immediately the cell felt smaller, the concrete walls closer, the space shrinking each time she breathed it in. It took an effort to keep calm. “
Mem
Hadley it is, then.”

She stomped over to the door and started walloping it with her laceless boot.

* * *

The waiting was hard. The girl spent it sitting cross-legged in a corner, her simple cotton dress hiked up above her knees for coolness. She had made use of the bucket with no trace of embarrassment, which made Hatti wonder about her past, what kind of life she was used to. At least it meant Hatti could sit on the bucket herself now. The relief made her almost cheerful.

“You sure big,” the girl commented, watching her yank up her underwear. Maya tried to suppress a sudden giggle by jamming a hand over her mouth, and her eyes grew huge with the effort.

“Big enough to thrash you, cheeky monkey.”

“You never catch me.”

The giggle escaped through her fingers and made Hatti laugh outright. Their eyes fixed on each other, and for a long moment neither looked away, then with a sigh Hatti sat down on the bed, leaning forward, her elbows on her knees.

“Where you from, Maya?”

“Palur.”

“Where on earth is Palur?”

“Malaya.” The girl looked affronted. “Everyone know that.”

“So what are you doing here in Darwin?”

“Japs came. Japs everywhere.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

Hatti watched the brightness dim in the black eyes and the laughter seep away, leaving a bleakness behind. That corner of the cell grew darker.

“So, Maya, did this
Mem
Hadley of yours bring you to Australia?”

A nod. “And my brother.” She screwed up her face. “
Mem
make us go in school here.”

“It didn’t look to me much like you were in school this morning.”

A small brown finger pressed to the girl’s lips. “Shh! No tell.”

Hatti smiled, and because for that split second her guard was down and her thoughts distracted, four words tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop them. “I have a son.”

No warning. No sense of the words tiptoeing onto her tongue. She had promised herself she would never talk about him, but her enticing little cell-mate had utterly disarmed her. She drew a long breath and fought to keep it steady, but it was too late to snatch the words back.

“He’s nineteen tomorrow,” her tongue added quickly, and even she could hear the quiet pride in her voice.

The girl clapped her hands with delight. “That good. Very good. When
Mem
Hadley help, you be home tomorrow. Sing ‘Happy Birthday.’”

Hatti stared down at her boots, at her large bony knuckles, at her broad lap where her son used to curl up when he was small, at anything other than the pictures in her head. She felt her heart growing too big for her chest. “No,” she said softly. “My boy is in the army. He’s stationed in Malaya.”

Maya squealed. “That bad. That very bad.”

“I know. I know it’s bad.”

* * *

The woman who came through the door was better than a glass of cold lemonade. She brought with her into the cell a rush of energy and the scent of wide open spaces that lifted the dead weight of the stale air and made breathing much easier. At a glance she took in the oppressive walls, the bucket in the corner, the girl’s jumpy eyes. Without a word she hugged Maya to her, then turned to Hatti and stuck out a hand.

“Hello, I’m Connie Hadley.”

She was slender, a few years younger than Hatti, with sun-streaked blond hair and wearing a casual summer shift that gave her an easy and relaxed appearance. But her blue eyes were alert and intelligent, the delicate bones of her face set in a watchful expression as if she did not quite trust what the world had to offer. Her handshake was firm.

“You must be Mrs. Hoot.”

“Just Hatti will do.”

“Well, Hatti. Thank you for looking after my girl.”

“Maya and I looked after each other. She’s a good kid.”

For the first time the woman smiled, a warm, generous smile that made Hatti hold on to her hand a moment longer and ask, “You heard what we are charged with?”

“Yes. But I have good news for you.” Her smiled widened. “I have found a witness who corroborates your story.”

“A witness?”

“That’s right. An elderly woman who lives in the apartment above the store opposite.”

“She witnessed it all?” Hatti’s throat was fit to choke.

“Yes, and she has signed a statement backing up what you said to the police.” She flung an arm in the direction of the door. “You’re free to go.”

Maya shrieked with delight. “Come, Plain Hatti, we must drink tea. I tell you
mem
good.”

Hatti inspected Connie Hadley’s face with a sharp, assessing gaze. “She’s very very good.”

* * *

They drove in a ramshackle old Ford to Connie Hadley’s house on the edge of town. Hatti had expected something impressive, at the very least something smart, but that wasn’t what she got. The sky was almost dark by the time they arrived, but there was just enough light to make out an old single-story house of slatted wood set in the shade of a thicket of scrub pines. It had seen better days. Its yard was enclosed by an unpainted fence, the brick front path was cracked, and there were holes in the wire screens. But as soon as Hatti stepped inside, she felt her spirits lift. Oh, it was still plain and basic, but like its owner it buzzed with life and energy.

A gramophone record was playing a Glenn Miller tune and four large, boisterous white men filled the living room with their laughter and chatter. Hatti was introduced first to Maya’s twin brother, a handsome polite Malayan with serious eyes, and then to each of the men in turn. They were all young and muscular, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers, and with shoulders that belonged on a bullock. Each one was in army uniform.

“G’day, Hatti,” one said immediately, and pushed a beer into her hand. He had bright marsupial eyes and a ready smile. “You had a beaut of a day, I hear.”

“Thanks,” she said for the beer and shrugged. “It was different.”

“I bet.”

“It was a good thing for Maya and me that Mrs. Hadley found the witness.”

He chuckled. “Sure was.”

Another soldier came over and slapped him on the back. “Keep your mouth shut, Alfie.”

“What do you mean?” Hatti asked.

“Nothing. Where are you from?”

“Brisbane.”

“Come and speak to Doug. He’s from Brizzie too.”

The soldier called Doug was tall and softly spoken. The sight of his cropped red hair and his hopeful, earnest eyes did something real bad to her innards, but she knocked back her beer and talked with him about hunting possum. It was during this conversation that Maya announced loudly to the room in general, “Hatti has son in army too.” They all regarded the newcomer with interest, and that was when she decided it was time to go home, but Connie Hadley materialized at her side and touched her arm, anchoring her.

“Where is he?” she asked.

“Malaya.”

“Oh, Christ!” someone groaned.

“No,” Connie said quickly, “he’ll be safe in a Japanese prison camp by now. He will survive, don’t worry.”

“It’s his birthday tomorrow,” Hatti blurted out, because what the hell else could she say?

They all sang “Happy Birthday” to Tom, and Hatti refused to let herself cry so she downed another cold beer instead.

“You ought to come on down to the forces’ canteen one day,” Connie suggested suddenly. “I mean it. We’re always looking for volunteers, and you never know, you might come across someone from the same division as your son who knows him and who—”

“Yes.”

“You’ll come?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” Connie fixed her eyes on Hatti’s, gave her a gentle smile and said again, “Good.”

That was all. After that, she left. She thanked Connie once more for rescuing her from the police station and refused her offer of a lift home, but Alfie and Maya insisted on walking her home through the dark streets. The night sky was littered with pinpricks of starlight, and as she walked, she thought of the same stars shining down on Malaya. A breeze rippled up from the sea and cooled her hot cheeks, giving her time to get her thoughts straight. Damn fool. Too many beers. But it had been beers or tears, one or the other.

As they approached her house—a corrugated iron shack with an outside dunny out back—the only sound was the pattering of Maya’s feet as she hurried to keep up with Hatti’s and Alfie’s long strides. Hatti made her decision.

“Alfie, why did Brian tell you to keep your mouth shut earlier?”

“What?”

“When we were talking about Connie Hadley finding the witness.”

Maya listened, head cocked to one side.

“It was nothing,” Alfie said, shuffling his feet.

“What did the witness say?” Hatti insisted. “Tell me.”

“Oh hell!” Alfie muttered. “You might as well know, I suppose. But promise you won’t say nothing.”

She nodded. They had stopped outside her door.

“We were all drinking tea at Connie’s place,” he explained. “She invites a group of us over regularly, real nice of her. To give us a bit of home life instead of just barracks and bars. When she heard how and why this pipsqueak had been arrested,” he tweaked Maya’s hair teasingly, “she got us all out on the street by the jeweler’s store searching for witnesses.”

Maya edged closer to Hatti in the darkness as though nervous of what was coming.

“So who did you find?” Hatti wouldn’t let it go.

“Well, damn me if we couldn’t find anyone. No one had seen anything. But there was an old woman who was up in an apartment opposite the store.”

“She saw?”

“No, no.” He laughed. “She was tucked up in bed with a crook chest, but Connie Hadley marched right in there, and the next thing we knew this old woman was spouting some story about two boys running out with the jewels and—”

“Yes,” Hatti said. “I know the rest.” She smiled, her throat so tight it hurt. “Maya, that
mem
of yours must think a whole lot of you.”

“She my friend.” She touched a hand tentatively to Hatti’s arm. “You my friend too now. I come visit you.”

“Make sure you do,” Hatti muttered gruffly. “G’night.” She vanished abruptly into her house so that she wouldn’t have to see a young man in uniform waving good-bye.

* * *

The oil lamp spilled a yellow light around the room and it pooled on the photograph on the mantelpiece. It stood in a wooden frame and smiled back at Hatti when she called out, “Hello, Tom,” to it. It was of her son in his army uniform, taken the day before he shipped out to Malaya, and if she leaned very close she knew she would see the nerves behind the smile, the slight tension around the eyes. But tonight she didn’t look close; she didn’t want to see anything but his happy, carefree smile.

He had his father’s smile and his father’s good teeth, not her wonky ones. But he had inherited her red hair and her lanky bones. His father had skipped town more than fifteen years ago, and good riddance to the bastard was what she felt, but she’d been sorry for Tom when he was little, missing his good-for-nothing dad. Never seen hide nor hair of him since.

She marched into the kitchen, kicked off her boots, and pulled the last bottle of beer, the one she’d been saving specially, from under the sink. She snapped off the cap and took a long pull on it. Tonight she needed it. To ward off the memory of her son’s easy smile when he waved good-bye and shouted, “I’ll be back, Ma. Keep a beer cold for me.”

BOOK: Diamonds in the Dust
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