Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Gifts Of The Peramangk - WIP Preview No.2

I wasn't quite expecting the response I got from last weeks preview of my current work in progress "Gifts of the Peramangk" - in fact, I was kinda floored. I got some really great feedback both on the blog and elsewhere across the web and it's been hugely encouraging. 

So, this week, I'm going to share another preview with you. And to stick with a little bit of continuity, I'm going to pick up young Virginia's story after she is taken by the authorities from her tranquil life in the Adelaide Hills. This preview actually occurs a little way further in to the manuscript because I'm structuring Virginia's back story as a series of flashbacks which will serve the main story that takes place in contemporary 2011. Again, this is an unpolished piece, probably bristling with grammatical flubs which I make no excuse for at this point. I want to encourage your feedback. Tell me what you think, what you like, what you don't like. Tear me down if you have to!! :)


A single rattle trap utility bumped along a dusty road, heading towards an, as yet, unseen destination. It kicked up plumes of dust behind it that were caught up and carried away by a languid breeze, disappearing into an overcast sky above a field of yellow pasture. Clouds had gathered on the near horizon behind the truck. Tendrils of rain fell from them but it was unlikely that rain would catch the truck any time soon. The fields around the truck, the sparse population of sheep and cattle that grazed within them had not seen rain for a long time.

A small figure sat huddled in the tray of the truck, holding onto the wooden sides with a vice like grip every time the truck shuddered over a pot hole in the track. Virginia flinched uncomfortably as she bounced on the wooden surface, her tail bone hitting it harshly and causing her pain. She did not dare protest to the driver inside the cabin. It was likely fall on deaf ears anyhow.

Virginia sat downcast, her knees drawn up against her tiny frame, bony arms wrapped around her knees. She appeared emaciated; her hair was stringy and limp. The plain dress she wore was made of a harsh material that had been plied with so much starch that it was stiff and abrasive against her skin.

She felt sick - she always felt sick nowadays. Not since she had been taken from her mother, did she remember feeling anything but sick. The food that she had been served up, day after day at the hospital where she had lived for the past few months was little more than gruel. Eventually, and unbeknownst to the Sisters there, Virginia had stopped eating the food altogether. To her mind, it was patently inedible.

A lifetime had passed - it seemed like a lifetime anyway - since she had seen her mother. The very thought of her mother and not being with weighed down so heavily upon Virginia that it threatened to crush her. Even now, the memory of her mother caused tears to well up and Ginnie could not hold them back. The grief was overwhelming. She couldn't understand why her mother never came to get her and take her home, nor could she understand why her questions about seeing her mother again were dismissed by the people who had taken her. No one had told her anything really; except that she was sick and that her mother could no longer look after her.

She had been separated from Albert not long after they had been brought to the hospital in the city. Though she had seen him once or twice some time after they arrived, Albert was eventually taken away from there and he all but disappeared. They wouldn't even tell her where he had gone.

Initially, Virginia had persisted with her questioning, drawing the ire of the Sisters and Aboriginal Protection Officers. She had been punished many times - severely - for defying their instructions whilst she was in the hospital, for refusing to eat her meals, for trying to escape, for crying for hours on end in the depths of the night. Eventually, Virginia stopped fighting them, defying them. A deep depression set in - a grief. She grieved for her mother and father. She grieved for Albert and the other children. She grieved for home. After a time, Virginia stopped eating or sleeping, interacting or speaking. Her voice vanished and she allowed her captors to do with her, whatever they desired.

Now, inexplicably, she was here. They had bundled her up into this rickety truck without explanation, driven out of the hospital and away from the city on a road that seemed endless, its destination uncertain. She had sat for hours, passing through rain and wind and the blistering sun with nothing but a canvas sheet to protect her. They had told her nothing.

The truck passed by a tall, gnarled, dead tree standing solitary in the field near the road. Virginia glanced up at it, spying two crows sitting side by side on a twisted branch. One of them issued a long, mournful caw as the truck passed by. She stared blankly at them through bloodshot eyes until they were out of sight and the road angled around to the right. The tree shrank to a speck behind her, swallowed up by the vastness of the landscape.

A line of bald hills flanked the road to the north on her left while, to the south, the fields threw stretched away into infinity. There was so much space - yet Virginia felt claustrophobic by its vastness.

Suddenly, Virginia heard the sound of a dog barking and she turned her head slightly to the left. A lean black and white cattle dog galloped along beside the truck at a cracking pace, its tongue flapping along side in the breeze. The dog jumped deftly over the uneven ground beside the road, flanking the vehicle, yapping enthusiastically up at Virginia who just stared dumbfounded at the mutt.

Overcoming a great inertia, Virginia turned herself around and looked through the rear window of the cabin. Out through the windshield, she saw a farm house up ahead, an austere sand stone homestead with a wide verandah that wrapped all the way around it. Several smaller buildings stood off to one side. Several palms bordered the property near a fence that stretched along the front of the grounds.

For the first time in what seemed an eternity, her curiosity was piqued.

The truck slowed as it approached the property allowing the enthusiastic dog to leap across in front of it. It passed through an entrance and over a steel cattle grate, scattering a group of chickens in all directions just beyond, before it turned in a wide arc around a lush circle of lawn in front of the farm house. The driver brought the vehicle to a stop and killed the engine.

Virginia slumped back against the cabin of the truck and drew her legs up even closer, gripping the single bag she held in her hands. She was too tired to feel frightened at this point, though her heart was pumping quickly in her chest.

At the foot of the stairs leading up to the verandah of the house, stood a tall man wearing a flannel shirt, dusty brown pants with suspenders and an aging leather belt and a wide brimmed pastoralist's hat that sat low, concealing his eyes and much of his face in shadow. A long cob pipe jutted from one corner of his mouth, curling wisps of blue smoke drifted up into the air from it. The man stood, his huge arms bent at the elbows, his hands in his pockets, silent.


The driver stepped out of the cabin of the truck and strode around to the rear. Once there, he signaled with a sharp gesture of his hand and a shrill whistle.

"Come on," he snapped.

Virginia didn't respond. She didn't look up. She didn't move.

Hoisting himself up into the tray, the driver snatched the bag out of Virginia's hands and angrily tossed it over the side. Before she knew what was happening, he grabbed her arm roughly and jerked her to her feet, dragging her like a rag doll off the back of the truck. Once off the ground, he leaned close to her.

"Pick up your bag you little grub"

He let her go and immediately stood tall, flashing a broad, cheesy smile as he adjusted his Stetson on his head and walked up to the man at the foot of the verandah.

The dog, who had sat itself down on the ground several feet away, watched the crumpled form of the girl beside the truck. Slowly, she got to her feet and stepped slowly over to her up ended bag. The dog, its tall ears pricked up and forward, whimpered softly, its long tongue lolling.

The driver offered his hand to the silent man who remained statue-like where he stood. He did not return the gesture.

"Good afternoon Sir" the driver greeted drippingly, withdrawing his hand quickly in a pathetic attempt to pretend that he had meant to swat an insect from in front of his face. "I'm...I'm Whitchester, from the Aborigines Protection Office"

The Pastoralist's eyes were focused beyond Whitchester, upon the child who stepped gingerly towards them, her bare feet flinching on the hot, dusty ground. Her dress was dirty, plain and torn in a coupe of places. She looked sick and pasty, despite her dark skin.

Virginia stopped a few feet behind Whitchester and looked up at the Pastoralist. He was a huge man, with a broad pair of shoulders, a stubbly jaw that appeared as hard as granite. She could not see his eyes under the brim of his hat.

Whitchester turned and subtly dragged Virginia by her arm around to stand in front of him. He placed his hands down on her shoulders, causing her to wince.

"This is the colored you asked for" Whitchester said hastily.

The Pastoralist tilted his head slightly, examining the child from head to toe. His expression remained as flat as Virginia's. After a few moments, he opened his mouth.

"She's a bit small. She got the mange or something?"

"No, no - not at all," Whitchester answered hastily. "It's perhaps just the drive up. We passed through some weather on the way. I can assure you, the Office has given the black a clean bill of health. It'll be...productive".

The Pastoralist took a huge, meaty hand out of his pocket and rubbed his chin thoughtfully allowing several more moments of silence to pass between them. On the verandah behind him two figures huddled at the corner of the house, watching the exchange silently.

He cocked his head around to his right and issued a shrill dog whistle that echoed across the compound. The two figures, two young Aboriginal girls several years older than Virginia skittered quickly along the verandah and stopped at the top of the stairs.

Without turning, the Pastoralist spoke.

"Take her to the out house. Clean her up. Get her out of those rags"

One of the young women skipped down the stairs and went across to Virginia.

The barefoot teenaged girl wore a crisp, white linen dress with an apron. Her hair was shiny and combed neatly to one side. When she reached Virginia she flashed her a warm, encouraging smile and took her hand. The girl's skin felt soft and velvety against Virginia's own. Quite inexplicably, Virginia felt a sharp jolt of something that had not experienced in a while.

It was hope.

Virginia had no idea what to expect, where she was being taken to, but she submitted to being lead away without protest.

As the girl stepped up onto the verandah, the dog sitting across the compound tracked them both with its eyes until they disappeared around the side of the house.

The Pastoralist waited until the girls were out of sight then he turned on his heel and ascended the stairs silently, leaving Whitchester to stand there alone, awkwardly.

Eventually, hesitantly, he turned and climbed into the truck. He started the engine and drove away from the farm house, disappearing over the horizon as though he had never existed.

From a window of the farm house, a pair of eyes that were peeking out from behind a curtain, held back by a petite and feminine hand, lingered for a time after everyone had gone. The hand released the curtain and the eyes too were gone. 

*                                    *                                   *

Virginia sat in a large metal tub filled with hot, soapy water as the two girls washed and scrubbed her tiny frame.

It was the first bath she'd had in days and though she didn't say it, Virginia felt indescribably good to be clean once more.

One of the girls, whose name was Deliah, fussed over Virginia's hair, massaging it with the ends of her fingers, ridding it of all the dust and the grime that had accumulated. The second girl, the one who had first greeted Virginia, was perched on her haunches in front of her, armed with a flannelette cloth and was cleaning her face. This girl, Marjorie, chatted away to Virginia as she washed, telling her all about the farm, the chickens in the yard, the wood they used for the fire, the shearing sheds nearby where the sheep were brought to for shearing, the stables where the horses were housed and the farm house with it's beautiful furniture, it's large kitchen with a big old cast iron stove and the ginger cat that flopped around lazily on the table there.

Virginia remained silent the whole time, not daring to utter a word as Marjorie talked and talked and talked. She instead, surveyed her surroundings. They were inside one of the buildings outside the main house. It was a sparse single room with a fireplace at one end, a table and chairs in the middle, a sink and cabinets along one wall behind and a pair of bunks, standing along each side wall at the other end.

Finally, Virginia was extricated from her bath and was dried off with fluffy white towels. They dressed her in a brand new white, cotton dress, similar to the ones they wore and an apron.

Deliah combed her hair, parting it carefully to one side until she was satisfied, then she nodded to herself.

"There you are" she said simply. "Good as new"

Virginia didn't say anything. She just blinked up at Deliah.

"You don't say much do you," Deliah noted. "Can't you talk?"

Virginia remained silent.

"Well, that's no good" Marjorie observed dryly. "Because we love to talk around here. We always talk - especially to the animals. They're the best ones to talk to. All the time! Talk, talk, tal..."

"You love to talk Marjy," Deliah cut in gruffly. "You'd talk the leg off a horse if you were given the chance"

Marjorie appeared hurt for a fraction of a second before she smiled and winked at Virginia.

Deliah appraised Virginia with her hands on her hips.

"You don't have to talk if you don't want to...but it would be helpful to know your name"

She cocked her head slightly, waiting for an answer.

Virginia didn't respond.

Unperturbed, Deliah turned and went over to the bag Virginia had brought with her, which lay on the bed.

Deliah opened the flap and rifled through it casually, looking for anything that might be labeled. Sure enough, she lifted one of the hospital dresses out of the bag and inspected its collar.

"V. Crammond" Deliah announced. "V...what is that...Violet?"

Virginia remained still where she stood.

"Hmmm" Deliah mused. "Viole...What about Veronica?"

Still Virginia didn't move, didn't speak.

Deliah frowned then looked down into the bag once more. She reached in and pulled out a rather squashed and wrinkly rag doll - a bear - with patches all over and one missing button eye.

She turned it over in her hands and looked closely at some text written on a tag that jutted out from one hip.

"Virginia" Deliah said. "Is it Virginia?"

Marjorie grinned broadly and clapped her hands together.

"Oooh - that is a lovely name" she gushed.

Deliah carefully returned the items to her bag and closed the flap once more. She stepped towards Virginia again.

"Well, Virginia it is then. We'll look after you here Virginia. This place isn't like the hospital. It's...different"

Virginia noted her pause then, and fleetingly wondered at its significance. But she said nothing.

"We have lots of things to do and we're always bus..."

The door to the out building flung open abruptly and the huge figure of the Pastoralist stepped through the entrance, ducking his head slightly to avoid hitting it on the door frame.

Both Deliah and Marjorie snapped to attention as his rose to his full height once more, while Virginia froze where she stood, blinking up at the Pastoralist, completely dumb founded.

He eyeballed all three girls.

"You got her clean yet!?" his voice boomed in the confines of the room, causing both girls to shudder where they stood, while Virginia remained deathly still.

The Pastoralist inspected Virginia up and down. He reached out and grabbed her hands in his own, seemingly monstrous palms. He turned them over in his, checking to make sure they were clean. He inspected her nails to ensure there was no dirt trapped underneath them.

Virginia watched him, too frightened to move or to protest.

Once he was satisfied, he let them go and stood back.

"Put her to work!" he snapped malevolently. "There are chores to be done!

The Pastoralist scowled at them, before backing out of the room and leaving without shutting the door.

Once he was gone, Deliah and Marjorie looked at each other with barely contained relief.

Marjorie crept cautiously over to the entrance and peeked around the door frame to make sure he was gone.

Deliah put her hand on Virginia's shoulder.

"Come on kiddo" she said flatly. "We'll start you out on the verandah"

And it was on the verandah, where it began - this new life that Virginia had been foisted into. She had no idea what was expected of her, no idea why she was here. Deliah fetched a wide broom that was leaning up against the stone work of the house and placed it into Virginia's hands. She gestured to the dusty wooden boards of the verandah.

"Start" she said simply.

While Deliah assigned herself to an axe handle and Marjorie spirited herself away to the kitchen, Virginia stood on the front porch of the house, armed with the broom that was almost twice as tall as she was. Slowly, steadily, Virginia extended the broom outward in her hands and began sweeping.

With a methodical rhythm, Virginia quietly swept away what were the vestiges of her old life under the bristles of the broom. It began well before dawn, when the night sky still twinkled with a billion stars, with the twice daily routine of sweeping the entire verandah of dust and grit. She was then directed to the chicken coop, down behind the out house where she slept, where she collected the eggs then cleaned out the coop - a constant battle she undertook with birds flying about her head and defecating on her if she was not careful. After that, Virginia was put to work in the horse stables, feeding the Pastoralists four horses hay each morning and night, ensuring they had fresh water and mucking out the stables. Sometimes, she chopped wood in the darkness of the pre-dawn and long after dusk, regardless of the weather, wearing nothing but her linen dress and no shoes on her feet. Chopping the firewood was the one task that frightened her. She struggled with the heavy axe and could barely wield it. She constantly feared that she would break it and she had already witnessed the consequences of breaking one of the Pastoralists tools.

Once, Deliah had done just that whilst attempting to split a particularly knotted piece of timber. Deliah had brought the axe handle down, striking the wood awkwardly. The handle broke clean in two. She stood there, blinking at the broken end of the handle. As if from nowhere, the Pastoralist materialized and stormed up to Deliah like a monstrous wraith, bellowing with fury. He snatched the broken handle from Deliah, grabbed her throat with a huge, meaty hand and smashed the splintered axe handle across her face, over and over, drawing blood through gaping lacerations. His ferocity wasn't assuaged until she lapsed into unconsciousness. Then, calmly, he threw her to the ground and walked away, the bloodied axe handle still in his hand.

Stunned by the horror she had witnessed, Virginia turned away and continued with her own work, too frightened to go to Delilah’s aid. She withdrew even further and refused to even look at the other girls or anyone who came to the farm. 

Virginia made her work her refuge, her protection. Day after day, she would toil without stopping, without protesting until long after the sun went down. All the while, watching from a short distance away was the black and white cattle dog with the pointed ears and mottled socks on its front legs. Virginia knew he was watching her, but she didn't respond to him.

Virginia fell into her bed each night and lay in the darkness, weeping softly until she fell asleep, tormented by her longing for home, for her mother and her father. Above Virginia, recovering from her grievous injuries, Deliah listened to her quiet sobs, whilst holding back her own, but she made no move to comfort Virginia.

Her mundane routine continued on and on and eventually, Virginia lost all concept of time. One day melded into another. She saw the sun rise and set before anyone else. Hours were swept away underneath the bristles of her broom. She made every effort to avoid the attention of the Pastoralist. She quickly grew to fear him...to hate him and she made sure she kept as far away and out of view as possible.

One particular evening, just on dusk, when the shrill song of crickets floated across the fields, Virginia moved along the verandah in one direction, sweeping the wooden boards clean, quietly proud of her work. She was careful to ensure that she had covered each part of the verandah twice, making sure that no area was missed or that a rogue collection of dust had accumulated behind her. The Pastoralist would skin her alive if the boards were not perfect.

The dog sat beside a rocking chair while she worked, watching her. The dog had become a constant companion, even though Virginia continued to ignore his presence. 

As Virginia progressed, her mind filled with images of home - as it often did - memories of sweeping the small verandah of her parents’ cottage. Virginia would look up to see her mother's smiling face as she watched Virginia with gratitude. Other memories infiltrated. Of riding tall on her father's shoulders, laughing and singing as together, walked along a track under the boughs of the eucalypts near the town.

She struggled to prevent herself from being overwhelmed by grief as she stood here alone, on this vast porch that could, for all the world, have swallowed her whole. She broke down silently. Tears spilled from Virginia's eyes and dropped onto the boards under her feet. Panicked, she swept them away with her broom, fearing that the Pastoralist would see her and punish her. She felt herself growing despondent

Why am I here? Why can't I go home?

The questions echoed, reverberating off corners and around bends inside her mind, tormenting her.

She looked across the compound, out through gates of the farm, along the road that disappeared into the vast distance where - for all she knew - there was an all consuming nothingness. Her desolation was complete.

Suddenly, from behind Virginia, a sound issued forth from the closed window. It was a sound that Virginia had never heard before - a long, crisp refrain that seemed to go on forever. It wavered melodically then dissipated into nothingness.

Virginia wiped furiously at her eyes and turned around swiftly as the sound came again, slightly louder this time, crisp and pure as the one before it. She was struck dumb. What on Earth could it be. Carefully scanning the verandah, ensuring there was no one else around, Virginia pushed the memories of home to one side and crept slowly up to the window. She leaned the broom handle against the stone work beside it and carefully placed her hands on the sill. As gently as she could, Virginia leaned in, craning her neck and peered through the glass.

In the parlor beyond, a woman sat in a plush chair her back to the window. A gramophone with a large brass horn stood on a pedestal in front if the woman. She was perched slightly forward and was holding something in her hands, up against her neck. Virginia squinted in the soft light from the parlor, trying to make out what it was. The woman drew a long, thin stick with a string tied to it across the object, eliciting a sound - the sound that Virginia had heard.

Her grief had been completely usurped now, by fascination.

The woman played, stringing several of these long notes together into a coherent stream of sound that sounded all at once somewhat mournful but also very pretty.

Virginia was entranced.

She watched, as the woman played some sort of music with the object in her hands. To Virginia, at first glance, it resembled something akin to a guitar. But she had never seen a guitar quite that small.

Her attention was so focused upon the woman inside, Virginia failed to notice that the broom handle beside her started to slide downward from its position, the head losing its purchase on the wooden boards. Inevitably, it clattered noisily to the floor.

Virginia squeaked in alarm and jumped a full foot into the air. Inside, the woman - startled by the noise - lowered her instrument and wheeled around in her seat, just as Virginia ducked out of view.

Crouching low, below the window sill, Virginia's heart pounded in her chest. Panic coursed through her. She was unsure if the woman inside had spotted her. The dog got to his feet and gingerly stepped forward towards Virginia, whimpering softly with concern.

Several moments passed before Virginia carefully crept on her haunches to the fallen broom and picked it up as quietly as she could. She did not dare look around. Satisfied that it was secure in her grip, Virginia quickly skittered away to the other end of the verandah and furiously began sweeping once more - every so often stealing glances at the window at the far end of the house.

The woman inside the parlor stood at the window, looking out upon the spot where, just a few moments before the child had been. She turned to one side and lingered for a moment, a faint smile tugging at the corners if her lips.

Then she turned away.


This preview of "Gifts of the Peramangk" is Copyright © 2011, Hambledown Road Imprints.


  1. So very curious now, Dean. Even in this excerpt, we get a hint of the tragedy that Virginia has suffered and its effects on her, and we begin to see her transformation. I think this will be a lovely story, so vivid, with such strong characters.

  2. Thank you Cee. It has been somewhat easy to construct these flashback scenes because I have based Virginia's experience on the experiences of real people who were taken in and around that time. The challenge is how to make these scene serve as an "echo" of the events that happen in the contemporary setting of the story. Using flashback scenes is actually pretty hard apparently.