‘Nightfall’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Irish Iris is what they call me here. They say I have eyes everywhere. That’s why Miss Upfield is here. She thinks I’ve seen Octavia.
I’m looking at Miss Upfield dressed in her widow’s weeds, black feathers, black lace, black hat, crepe scratching at her neck. I stare at the curled paper face of Octavia staring up from Miss Upfield’s glove. It’s a fair likeness. Perhaps Miss Upfield really is Octavia’s sister. Her face is shaped the same. The shape of a heart. Miss Upfield smiles. She’s kept all her teeth except for that gold one at the front.
‘I know you’re frightened, Iris,’ she says. ‘You needn’t be frightened of me. You’ve been telling people you were Octavia’s friend. If that’s true, you can be my friend too.’
I look at the wall, at the lines squashed between the bricks, like stairs too shallow and narrow to climb, leading to nowhere, up and down.
‘You don’t sound Irish,’ she says.
I don’t say you don’t sound like Octavia.
Miss Upfield asks where I hailed from before I sailed to Adelaide.
Those years are an empty sack flapping in the wind. The bell clangs. I leap up. Miss Upfield leaps up too. She’s taller than Octavia. The top of my head would hit her chin.
‘Please,’ she says. ‘Matron has excused you for another hour.’
They’ve given Miss Upfield a chair with an embroidered cloth. They do that when there’s visitors, like they slosh more lime about the floor. It can blind you if you touch it and rub your eyes.
‘Oh, Iris, when I look at you, I can’t help thinking….’ Miss Upfield begins to cry. I watch her shoulders judder up and down. She dabs her lacy kerchief. ‘I’m sorry. It’s finding you here after all these years, knowing you were friends with my poor dear sister.’
I stare at the window. Any moment, the Doctor will slide through the bars. Every evening after the bell he threads himself through, thin as smoke, down the wall to my bed, he takes my hand, squeezes it, shakes a drop of forgetting potion into my mouth. Quiet, Iris. Or they’ll hear.
‘Iris,’ Miss Upfield is saying, ‘If there’s anything you remember. Anything at all. My father will write a letter on your behalf saying you’re of good character. He’s waiting outside, just up the hill. He’s hoping you’ll help. I promise he’ll try to get you out, find you a good position. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?’
Promise, do you Miss Upfield? A promising prospect. A position with a view. That’s what the Doctor said. He’s watching us now, waiting to see if I’ll tell where I lived before they put me here Behind the Wall.
I was living at the Doctor’s house, with its carpets, curtains, cellars, tasselled bell ropes, fires grinning in the grates, the smell of peaches and cinnamon on the hob, if you call that living, with the Doctor creeping about, peering with his eyeglass, and long white fingers and toes like whiskery turnips pulled too early from their beds. All the same size they were, those toes and fingers, none bigger, none smaller.
I look at Miss Upfield’s gloves. She has all five fingers, five different lengths. Her palms will be like Octavia’s, as damp and white and soft as lard. Not like mine, red and rough. I was ashamed of my hands when Octavia danced with me. I didn’t believe her when she said she was ashamed of her hands being so flimsy and lady-like.
The Doctor said, ‘Many are born with the hands of a criminal, a bent thumb, twisted knuckle, curly nail, sent down the family line. There’s nothing you can do to change your thieving bones. But you’re different, Iris. If you listen, work hard, keep your mouth shut, in no time I’ll raise you up.’
When Octavia danced, her eyes shone like chestnuts. Miss Upfield’s eyes aren’t chestnuts. They’re almond-coloured, almond-shaped.
I look at the feathers of Miss Upfield’s hat and think of all the chickens I plucked at the Doctor’s house, how he made me keep the innards so he could study them with his microscope. My Mam always said God put feathers in my head instead of brains.
‘Matron says you came out here with a man called Billy Murphy,’ Miss Upfield says. She reaches forward, squeezes my hand.
I jump as if the floor has been lit beneath my boots, pull back my hand, stuff it under my skirt. I don’t like to have my hands touched.
Miss Upfield thinks it’s hearing Billy’s Murphy’s name that makes me jump.
‘Don’t fret. Billy’s not here, Iris,’ she says. ‘Nobody is. Only the two of us.’
I almost laugh. What about all the other girls here singing and crying and screaming and wailing and fighting in the laundry, kitchen, and sack-stitching room, or the Doctor spying with his spying glass?
Octavia never said she had a sister, did she?
This Miss Upfield is like all the rest. Thinks she knows everything, except this one thing, or she wouldn’t be here. Thinks we know nothing here Behind the Wall. But we know which way the axe cuts the tree.
Octavia liked to hear my stories before they opened the doors at the Prado Music Hall. We’d take a drop of gin and hide under the stage, crouched in the dark, and I’d say, ‘Miss Octavia Upfield, why are you here?’
She had fine clothes and hats, and spoke with a plum in her throat.
‘I’m not like you, Iris,’ she said. ‘I wish I was.’
I said to her, ‘Octavia, nobody wants to be like me. And mind who you talk to, who you trust. Don’t they teach you anything in those fancy drawing rooms?’
She said, ‘I want to know what it’s like to be you, Iris. How you got here. What you think. What you want from life.
Want? I thought but said, ‘Well Octavia, if you really do care to know.’
There we sat in the hot dark space beneath the stage while the floors were swept. One of the Madams called for us. The musicians’ patched shoes creaked above our heads. We laughed when they tuned up their cat-shriek violins until Madam shouted for us to get off our arses. We hurried up to the hall, danced together, Octavia and me, laughing, laughing for us, not for them, as men crowded through the doors and tried to cut in.
Octavia used to shout, ‘That’s a bit rich sir, hands off.’
So I shouted too, ‘Didn’t you hear the lady, Mister?’
Octavia would laugh and wink so I said, ‘Well, Octavia, you want to know how I came to be here dressed up so fine, dancing with you at the Prado?’
Miss Upfield thinks she’s hit the bulls-eye mentioning Billy Murphy. Most of us here Behind the Wall sailed out here with our Billies, Jemmies, or Toms. No sooner did they set their boots in the dust, they streaked off like a dog chasing a rabbit across a field, all glint and muscle and hunger and bragging about what they-will-become. I waited for my Billy to bring back rabbits and gold, but he didn’t come.
My tits were growing as heavy as two stones. I’d heard the rumours. The goldfields were turned to dust. The rabbits were bags of fur with their unlucky tails docked off. There were too many servant girls like me waiting for nothing at the Depot, so I waited till night, staggering on my sea-legs like I was drunk, reeling through the hot salt wind and fiery sky, because Billy said wait here by the alehouse in the shadow of Coopers Stack.
I saw things. Heard things scuttle inside my head. Smelt the shout of the sailors talk. Welcome to Port Misery, they said. Mosquitoes, ghosts, pestilence.
It’s the same in every port for girls like us. You stand with the bones of your back pressed against the wall as sailors rope up their harpoons and aim them at your lower parts, or you go into a tavern for a drink. I’d heard about those taverns on the docks. I’d heard about the tunnels running from the tavern cellars down to the waterfront. Girls going into the tunnels, rowed out to a ship, not coming back.
I crouched all the night in the shadows, the stars hanging hot and close, thinking, listening, seeing the hair and bones of those tunnel girls rising up to float in the river mist.
Morning, the sun stoked its furnace high. My head was spinning. My mouth was rust. My stomach yowled louder than the dogs chained-up by Harts Mill. You’re lucky, Iris, I thought. You’ve lived another night, for what it’s worth, thanks to your wits – and no thanks to Billy Murphy.
I sniffed about the train yards, waited in the shimmering grass, yellow and scratching, flies at my mouth, ants up my legs. I waited until night, for the train to shrug open its doors and climbed inside a carriage.
I’d never seen the world rushing past so fast.
I thought I was back in the stinking ship with the greybeards rising up, and women screaming for their Mams, and blue babies tossed into the drink, while the Captain slurred prayers, and Billy Murphy pulled me away, slapped me and squeezed my jaw so hard I thought my eyes would pop.
‘Irish Iris,’ he said. ‘Stop your blubbering.’
The train slows. There’s smoke in my nostrils. I gulp it all down, the smell of trees, the horses’ muck, the sight of the Lord’s pale stone church spire poking up, the fold of hills like small brown waves about to break.
‘Iris? Can you hear me?’
It’s Miss Upfield clicking her fingers in front of my face.
‘I’ve brought you something.’ She holds up a bottle of rum. ‘Only a few more questions for today. I’ll leave you to reflect on your duty, Iris. Before God.’
A bottle of rum has its own halo, its own hum. Miss Upfield waves it at me just out of reach, thinks I’m going to grab it. Instead, I snatch the photograph from her glove. The Doctor hisses in my ear: Iris, you never saw her. You know what happens if you tell. I touch the picture, remembering the cold shock of Octavia’s cheek.
There I was on the train, pictures rushing past, pictures of houses, gardens, carriages, shops, a man ploughing lines of dust, a white lady and her white lady’s parasol, a slug of a river lying on its side, the blue hoop of sky so big it makes you weep.
I jumped down into the reeds and rocks, wiped my bleeding hands, followed the tracks until I found the railway station. I’d never been in a place so grand that I wasn’t chased out. I was mad with hunger, mad with thirst. I wanted to pray or kneel or laugh at the cool echoes and shunt of steam.
See those ladies going in and out of a room, Iris? Follow them.
Inside, an old lady, a Grandma with a basket of peaches. Peaches! I’d never seen them so plump. Grandma spied me with her wet slidey eyes, patted the bench beside her and said which ship did I come on. She asked to see my hands. I held them out. She eyed my skirts and said the Doctor would see me for free. If I was quick-witted and quiet, he might even take me in.
Could it be true?
Grandma patted my arm. I thought I might run or slap her baggy cheek but there was something in her Grandma smile which reminded me of my Mam.
‘What does the doctor want?’ I said.
‘He wants a servant for the house,’ she said, ‘a servant to Science.’
Science, I thought. I had no schooling, not like you, Octavia. My Mam says nobody filled their stomachs by reading books. Billy Murphy filled my stomach with something else.
There I was, half alive, delivered to the land of plenty, the land of dust, to this city where no convicts were allowed, wondering if I should believe this old Grandma or not. I could smell that peach. I’d never tasted one, soft and syrupy in the mouth. She held one out, like a ball of sun in her glove.
I didn’t take it in case it had broken glass or pins stuck inside. But then another young lass came in, and I saw Grandma’s wet eyes sliding over her.
I stepped forward, and said, ‘All right then.’
I tried to imagine me, a servant to a doctor. And I was thinking how my Mam always said I’d never be pretty enough or clever enough to be raised up, and I saw her telling everyone in the village in her la-di-dah voice I had a good position in South Australia.
It was a dream walking out of that station beside Grandma with her basket of peaches, telling me to wipe my chin, to stay quiet. The Doctor liked the quiet. I wanted to wet myself but I kept on walking, thinking if only Billy Murphy could see me now on my way to a position, a proper job, swanning past the workmen cutting stone, the trees with their green fire of leaves, and the streets so flat and wide, and the buildings clean and fine, the telegraph poles leaning, and the horses’ dust rising to make me cough, and Grandma telling me to cover my mouth if I coughed like that or the Doctor wouldn’t like it. She showed me the stairs leading to a door, shining wood and gleaming brass, and told me the sign said Physician. I rolled the word around in my mouth, thinking it sounded like a fish swimming so silvery.
She took me around the back to a laneway. There we stood in the shadows staring at the bright light at the end of it.
The Doctor saw me at the door of his room.
I know why the rabbit goes still when it’s caught in the trap.
Miss Upfield says, ‘Iris, Tell me one thing about my sister that nobody else could know unless they were her true friend.’
She opens the rum bottle. Moves it towards me. I can smell it but won’t fall for a trap inside a trap. I can hear the Doctor whispering, ‘Hold on, Iris. Don’t let go of her hand.’
‘Depraved,’ the Doctor called it, when he talked of the starvation he’d seen, like I’d never seen it, or felt its bite.
He was standing in the kitchen breathing over my shoulder, snorting his pinch of snuff. ‘Iris,’ he said, ‘you’ll fade away if you don’t eat the food the Good Lord set on your plate.’
But I couldn’t eat, not since he had me up there, making me hold those poor girls’ hands.
‘All in the name of Science,’ he said. ‘The blessed few are the sacrificed, benefitting the multitudes.’
Now he comes here at night, rubs himself in goose-fat and slides through the window bars. Puts his turnip fingers around my neck. ‘Be still, Iris!’
If I scream, Matron comes and throws ice water over me.
‘I never saw her,’ I say to Miss Upfield. ‘I never saw that girl in the photograph.’
Miss Upfield smiles. She thinks she’s won because she’s made me talk. No matter what anybody says or does, I’ll never tell them about the Doctor closing Octavia’s eyes that last time. I’d grown so thin by then, I rubbed myself with goose-fat and slid through the gap in the Doctor’s window, jumped down into the lane, ran to the river, and slept in the reeds until the policeman found me and brought me here, a Destitute.
Miss Upfield coughs a silent, deep, dying cough. I feel sorry then. Perhaps she really is Octavia’s sister. A grey wave of sorry rises up. Miss Upfield will go to her grave looking for her sister who has no grave. ‘Sh!’
‘I might have seen her,’ I shout over the Doctor shh-ing in my head.
Miss Upfield goes still, stares at me with those almond eyes. Her nose is bent to the side, as if she’s pressed it against a window too long. Her earrings glint and whisper. That’s when I see her ears are not like Octavia’s. Octavia had no earlobes.
‘No earlobes!’ she sometimes cried. ‘Nobody in my family has them. No room for rich men to claim us, to yoke us, with earrings of diamond and gold.’
I’m shouting now. ‘I never saw her. I never knew your sister. I only said I did.’
Miss Upfield laughs. Her black dress ripples.
I shout over her laughing, ‘As God is my witness, Miss Upfield, I wanted everyone to think I knew your sister. It’s all lies. I heard everyone talking about her. I only said I knew her because….’
I can see inside Miss Upfield’s mouth as she coughs. I see the tooth with the gold tip. Her powdered neck and her hair is a different colour beneath her hat. Her shoes have bright shiny red buttons down the side. That’s when I remember looking up through the cracks in the floorboards of the stage at the Prado and seeing those very same shoes, those very same red buttons.
‘Get off your arses, girls! This is a dancing hall. You’re paid to dance.’
That’s where I’ve seen Miss Upfield before. At the Prado. She’s not Octavia’s sister. She’s one of The Madams come here to trick me, to make me talk.
I jump up and run at her.
‘Matron,’ she shouts in the same rough Madam voice.
I have a few tricks myself and hug her hard, squeeze her, sobbing and blubbering, saying, ‘I’m sorry, Miss. Sorry I never saw your sister. I wish I had.’ I feel her begin to soften in my grasp, and say, ‘Everybody knows Irish Iris never tells a lie. I see things, hear things. They get mixed up in my head.’
She unpeels my arms and shoves me away. ‘I knew you’d never known her. My father warned me. He said girls like you lure the soft-hearted to visit you, to pity you, when all you want is a bottle of rum. It made you feel important, didn’t it, me coming here today? You’ve been lying like a hound, all along. I could wring your neck and nobody would care.’ She takes my wrists, holds them tight.
How we danced at the Prado, Octavia and me!
I spit in Miss Upfield’s eyes, ‘No ear lobes. Octavia had almond eyes. Not chestnuts.’
Matron is there with her bucket of cold water and I’m shivering and cursing Billy Murphy again.
I still hear them. All the ones before Octavia, scratching beneath the Doctor’s floor. Three coming in, two coming out of his door. I never counted them. The doctor wouldn’t like it. He liked it when I went to the Prado to meet new girls like Octavia, girls who’d been tossed out of their homes, tossed away for having a baby growing up their skirts.
He liked it when I brought them back to be fixed up, like he fixed up me too.
‘For Scientific and Social Advancement,’ he said. ‘Can’t have model city’s Slice of Society rotting at the base. Off you go to the Prado tonight, Iris. See what the harvest brings.’
Grandma Peach-Cheeks stood me in front of the mirror and dressed me up in some poor dead girl’s clothes until I didn’t recognise myself.
The Prado. Nobody ever forgets a place like that. There’s not a woman here Behind the Wall, not a single Destitute, who hasn’t scraped her hoofs across that clay floor, not a girl who hasn’t fallen down in the straw with some cove on top of her, and who’d pay anything for the Doctor to fix her up.
I told her not to come there. I said, ‘Octavia, whatever happens, never see that Doctor on North Terrace by the lane.’
But there you were on the bed, him standing over you.
Miss Upfield smashes the rum bottle.
I look down at the splintered glass, at the floor of stars.
When I close my eyes at this evening hour, the narrow lines between the bricks begin to melt. I can see through The Wall. I can see Miss Upfield – whoever she is – hurrying up the street. I see her meet a man on a corner. Her father, she said it was. The one who’d promised to vouch for me, say I was of good character and get me out from Behind the Wall.
But it’s not Octavia’s father. It’s the Doctor.
They look back at me down the hill. The gaps in the bricks are closing up. I press my ear to the cold damp stone and remember the last time I brushed my fingers across Octavia’s cheek.
Over the fall of night, the cry of birds, the neigh of horses, the ooze of the river, the shunt of trains, I can hear Miss Upfield – The Madam – say, ‘There’s no need to worry about that one, Doctor. Irish Iris saw nothing at all.’
Image shows a section of the photograph ‘Prado Music Hall, Queens Theatre Adelaide’ by Delma Corazon.