I'm pleased to present the third in my series of work in progress previews of my new novel "Gifts Of The Peramangk". In keeping with the focus on young Virginia, I've picked out the continuation of her young life in 1951 where we find her struggling to deal with having been removed from her home and taken away. As before, this comes to you raw and unpolished. I'd love your feedback.
Her young life became occupied solely by working on the Pastoralist's farm.
Virginia worked and worked and worked. Day after day, week after week, from the chilly pre-dawn until long after dusk, she toiled away with little respite from the mundanity of her servitude. It became the only thing she knew. There was nothing else. Her life before had been wiped from her mind completely. There was no longer anything to think of other than the oppressive nature of her life here. The color and life, warmth and happiness of the Hills was replaced by the ruddy yellows and browns of this unforgiving place. Virginia doubted if this farm, wherever it was, had ever been green. The dust and the heat and the flies were all consuming and it was impossible to escape from.
Worse than these though was another thing that had been taken from her.
Virginia remained mute, refusing to speak, despite the best efforts of the older girls to get her to talk. Her only focus was centered around getting through each day without drawing attention to herself. There were a number of people who worked for the Pastoralist on the this vast station and it was clear to her that she was considered the lowest form of worker. She, therefore, took refuge in her work. Her once delicate hands were now calloused and tough. She struggled with constantly itching skin due to the the soaps and detergents she was forced to use in the outhouse toilets. If it wasn't that, the grime and the shit of the stables and yards had 'gifted' her with a number of ailments - including eczema and psoriasis. But she dared not complain.
The consequences of complaining, of speaking up at all were dire.
Virginia had come to know the Pastoralist as a brutal and unforgiving man who accepted nothing less than complete obedience. Punishment for failing him was severe and Virginia learned early on never to question him. To date, she had avoided his wrath and had witnessed it only through the misfortunes of the other girls, Deliah and Marjorie. He routinely meted out punishment to them for seemingly innocuous infractions or just because he felt like it. They were rarely without the physical scars he bestowed upon them to say nothing of the mental scars. Virginia lived in constant fear, knowing that her turn would surely come.
When it did, Virginia was totally unprepared for it.
It followed a particularly awful day on the wood heap in early winter. Long before dawn, Virginia had been summoned from her bed and ordered by one of the Pastoralist's nameless lackeys to chop up an entire truck load of firewood for the homestead. Quite unexpectedly, Virginia was greeted by the first rains of the season and they had arrived with a vengeance. There was a sense of urgency that hung over this task because the homestead was running low on dry wood for the fireplaces and kitchen stove. The Pastoralist's orders were clear - the wood had to be chopped and stacked safely away before the inclement weather rendered it totally useless.
The three girls were forced to worked on a roster based system, rotating through the various chores around the farm. It was Virginia's turn to perform the wood chopping and she dreaded it because, of the three girls, she was the worst at it. Of all the jobs, she struggled with it the most. The axe was heavy in her small hands and she could barely lift it. Thus, it took her twice as long to chop and stack the wood as it did Deliah and Marjorie.
Stepping out into the darkness of the predawn, the rain was already coming in hard. It peppered the skin like needles, it carried with it an interminable chill, a misery of sorts and it soaked everything. The sky above crackled with lightning, forks of electricity licked the pasture all around. How ever unnerved Virginia might have been, she didn't dare protest or abandon her task; the memory of witnessing the Pastoralist taking the broken axe handle to Deliah was still fresh in her mind and it frightened her into action.
Thus, Virginia toiled away in the mud and the wet, wielding the axe that stood almost half her own height. The only respite she could get from the storm was the skeletal remains of a burnt out shed that stood next to the wood pile. Though it's stone and brick walls were largely gone, parts of the iron roof were still intact so she was able to gain some protection from elements. Virginia retrieved some discarded sheets of iron that lay on the ground nearby to erect a makeshift wall on two sides so she could shield herself from the worst of the rain. It worked - but only partially.
With painstaking effort she did begin to master the axe. Her output began to increase accordingly. She loaded pile after pile of soaked firewood blocks into a rusted wheelbarrow then, braving the elements, she transported them along the long path to the shed behind the homestead. Over and over again she did this, becoming soaked through to the bone. By midday, Virginia had made some headway. She was shivering from the damp, but she ignored the discomfort.
At some point, Deliah appeared, almost without warning, with a plastic garbage bag she had spirited to Virginia from inside the house and that did provide Virginia some protection. She had also brought her a chicken sandwich and an apple for her to eat, having sneaked them from the kitchen when no one was looking. Together they stuffed the food item under some more iron inside the the ruined shed where they would stay dry. As much as she wanted to, Deliah didn't stay too long - she couldn't - for her work inside the house went on and the Pastoralist was, reportedly, in a foul mood because of the weather. If he caught Deliah out here, she would surely suffer under his brutal hand. She begged Virginia not to say anything.
By the middle of the afternoon Virginia was numb - both physically and emotionally. She struggled to move about freely in her sodden clothing. It had stuck to her skin, despite the modicum of protection the plastic garbage bag provided. Every so often she paused to gather her strength under the shelter of the iron, making sure that no one was watching. She sat down on a dry patch of ground and took out the sandwich which she had nibbled on gradually since Deliah had disappeared back indoors.
There was someone however...more specifically...something watching her.
The black and white cattle dog had snuck into view from the shelter of the out houses and had been surveying Virginia from afar as he often did. When Virginia disappeared from view, the dog whimpered from his vantage point, trying to see where she had gone. Eventually, his curiosity prompted him to brave the weather and he made a dash for the wood pile where, upon rounding the corner of the shed, he founded the little girl huddled up under the iron.
Virginia looked up upon seeing the dog and regarded him absently. She was shivering too much to acknowledge him. The dog stopped short in the rain, his eyes falling across the morsel of food Virginia held in her hand, waiting hopefully.
"Well?" Virginia croaked, her voice gravelly from months of silence. "D...don't just stand there"
Virginia gestured to the dog who needed no further prompting. He trotted in under the shelter and sat down on his haunches, wagging his tail as Virginia handed him a small corner of bread and chicken. He gobbled it down eagerly and then whimpered expectantly for more.
"I got no more" Virginia held out her empty hands, but the dog wasn't looking at her hands. Rather, they were focused on the apple that sat in her lap.
Virginia glanced down and the shining red fruit and frowned quizzically at the dog.
"Fruit?" she questioned incredulously. "How silly".
Taking the apple in her shaking hands, Virginia bit off a piece of flesh and tossed it to the dog who snapped it up effortlessly in his jaws.
That single action both surprised and actually delighted Virginia who, for the first time in what seemed an eternity, did something that felt completely foreign to her.
Taking another bite of the apple, this time for herself, Virginia reached out for the dog's collar and thumbed a silver disc that hung from it. She read the inscription that was engraved on it's surface.
Again she frowned.
"Simon?" she croaked. "What kind of name is that for a dog?"
The dog, Simon, just sat there, quivering with excitement rather than cold.
Virginia shared another piece of the apple with Simon. And another, until all that was left was the core.
She appraised the drab sky outside.
"Is it always so miserable here Simon?"
The dog barked once and wagged his bushy tail enthusiastically.
Her hunger assuaged somewhat, Virginia got to her feet, brushed down the plastic of her make shift poncho, then took the axe handle from it's resting place beside the entrance.
"You stay here Simon" she ordered as earnestly as she could. "No sense in two of us getting soaked through"
As she was about to return to her work, Virginia stopped when, from across the compound, coming from the parlor room of the homestead, the sound of music drifted through the rain and the storm and into her ears. Virginia whipped her head in the direction of the house and stood perfectly still, listening to the beautiful, plaintive sonnet, captivated.
It captured Virginia's attention - her imagination - and she had unconsciously begun to look forward to it every day when she was working. In fact, she made sure that her other chores were completed and she was out on the verandah, sweeping and dusting - it always began at the same time each day. The music always stopped her dead in her tracks and the more she listened to it the more she was drawn to its beauty.
Virginia knew now what the music was, having listened into conversations amongst the girls and the other workers on the farm. It was the Pastoralist's wife and the instrument she played was called a violin. Virginia had only ever glimpsed this woman from a distance and she had never actually seen her instrument. She was never in a position to see the woman play but Virginia always knew by her music that she was there.
And in that moment, there on the wood heap, in the driving, miserable rain, a thousand miles from anywhere, Virginia closed her eyes and drifted away from the farm on the sounds of the violin music. Time melted and was gone. She felt as light as a feather. There was nothing but peace.
Her reverie was suddenly and violently broken when a sharp, stinging blow crashed into the side of her head - so powerful that it lifted Virginia off her feet and propelled her small body a full six feet across the muddy ground where she crashed into the wood pile.
She was immediately overcome by nausea and she scrambled desperately where she lay, her mind swirling in panic. Struggling to bring her eyes into focus, Virginia blinked furiously and looked up to see the towering figure of the Pastoralist standing over her.
"What are you doing?!" he bellowed satanically.
Virginia tried to stifle the urge to vomit from the stinging pain in her ear and an accompanying, high pitched ringing that had assailed her hearing. Her heart raced, her lungs heaved and spasmed as though she had forgotten to breath. Gaining a precarious hold on her senses, Virginia became aware of a snake like object the Pastoralist gripped in his right hand, which he began to unspool.
It was a bull whip.
"Answer me!!" the Pastoralist roared, reaching down with his free hand and grabbing Virginia by the throat, yanking her to her feet.
"I don't give you shelter here so you can do what you like, when you like...," he paused as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the half eaten apple. "And I won't have thieving in my home!"
Virginia blinked completely dumbfounded as the Pastoralist threw the apple at her as hard as he could, striking her square in her belly and winding her. He grabbed at the plastic that covered her and the fabric of her dress, tearing it from her in one swift motion. Then he stepped back several paces, the bull whip hanging from his hand.
Standing there, completely naked now, Virginia was utterly paralyzed, her disorientation had coalesced into blinding fear. The Pastoralist raised the thick handle of the whip above his head and he parted his legs.
"Turn around!" he screamed maniacally.
Virginia remained frozen on the spot, staring blankly up at him, his stony features shaded by the brim of his hat. She couldn't move.
The Pastoralist spat on her and brought the handle of the whip down with a flick of his wrist. The length of plaited leather whistled through the air, snapped back loudly and Virginia yelped in pain as the whip's end cut a deep crimson gash into her skin. Intense pain blossomed across her chest and she began to shake uncontrollably. The music from inside the house stopped and all Virginia heard now was the crack of whip echoing in her head.
The Pastoralist brought the handle back over his head and cracked the bull whip again, the end striking her almost identical to the first. She bit her lip. Tears streamed down her face and she felt her legs buckle underneath her.
Quite unexpectedly, a single thought passed across her failing consciousness.
Where has the music gone?
As the Pastoralist whirled the bull whip around his head for a third time, Virginia crumpled to the ground and curled over, vomiting into the mud. Her consciousness fading, the Pastoralist's whip struck home across her shoulders. She made no sound as her blood trickled down over her skin and was washed away by the rain. The burning pain overwhelmed her and she succumbed to the darkness.
The Pastoralist glared at the unconscious child on the ground, his anger boiling like a furnace. He closed his eyes and tried to calm his nerves; to slow his breath. Then, he turned on his heel and strode away, leaving the child on the ground.
Simon, who had been cowering under the shelter of the ruined shed, waited until his master was gone from view then he slunk cautiously over to Virginia's still form.
The darkness seemed to envelop everything...but not quite.
A blanket was draped across her still form, protecting her from the rain. She could sense a pair of delicate, feminine hands on her skin - then more hands underneath her, lifting her. And then she was no longer out of doors. In her darkness, she could hear the echoing whispers of a woman's voice, issuing instructions to someone unseen - 'Bring the disinfectant and towels. I need boiling water, bandages'. She could sense the urgency around her but something prevented her from opening her eyes to see. The blackness prevailed again. There was nothing.
* * *
Virginia awoke, days later to find herself inexplicably assigned to kitchen and cleaning duties inside the homestead.
It was the first time she had ventured out of her quarters in nearly a week and she still moved gingerly, owing to the still painful welts on her chest and back. She had been confined to her bed where she'd battled a rampant fever and excruciating pain. She hadn't been able to keep any food down nor fluids. She didn't so much sleep as she did writhe in the fog of infection for night after night. The girls were sent a fresh supply of bandages and antiseptic twice a day to tend to her horrific wounds. Food was brought from the kitchen by the head house keeper each day - more food than they were ever allowed before. The girls were ordered to keep quiet and make no mention of this in front of the Pastoralist. Clearly, someone else was ensuring the girls had what they needed to care for Virginia.
Eventually, Virginia's fever broke. She slowly began to recover and, after being inspected by the chief house keeper, she had been declared fit for duties once more and summoned to the kitchen - much to the shock of Deliah and Marjorie and herself.
Working inside the house was considered a significant step up for a domestic servant and it only ever came after a significant period of proving oneself in performing the more menial and less desirable chores.
Virginia had encountered the Pastoralist's head house keeper in passing and she had learned to fear this imposing barrel of a woman who always wore a scarf around her head and seemed only to ever bellow orders to the other girls.
It was clear from the moment that Virginia stepped into the kitchen, the house keeper was not at all impressed with her. She examined Virginia with keen eye of a drill sergeant, grabbing her ear lobes roughly and checking behind them. She held Virginia's hands, turning them over, picking at her eczema afflicted skin. Finally the house keeper inspected Virginia's finger nails, noting specks of ingrained dirt in some of them which she tried to loosen with her own claw like nail. Virginia just stood there and quivered like a jittery field mouse, jumping at shadows and the softest of noises.
The house keeper shook her head, disappointed.
"You're too scrappy to be inside here," she appraised her dourly. "But I've been...encouraged...to make use of you"
The house keeper turned to a cupboard on the far wall of the kitchen and fetched a bucket, an apron and some cleaning cloths.
"You'll start in the bathroom. Mop the floors, buff and polish them. Make sure the tiles glimmer and the grout is as clean as the day it was applied. Then you'll attend to the toilets and the laundry. Understand?"
Virginia blinked and nodded obediently as the house keeper deposited the equipment in front of her.
The house keeper pointed towards a doorway that lead through to the inner house.
"Go," she ordered. "I'll be in to check on your work"
Virginoa gingerly gathered up the bucket and mop and made her way through the doorway into. A long hall greeted her and she was immediately struck by the grandness of it. Plush carpets under foot, large paintings hanging from the walls on either side of her, large and imposing items of furniture standing silent, their contents visible through shining glass. She imagined that this was what a castle might be like.
Her work began again but, this time, Virginia felt strangely calm and protected in the confines of the homestead. She mopped and scrubbed the tile work and the floors of the laundry and bathroom just as the house keeper had instructed. She removed every trace of mould and dirt from the grouting in the spaces between each tile. She buffed and polished the brass taps and fittings until she could glimpse her own reflection in them. She took special care with the tile work in the bathroom which had pretty patterns and shapes that Virginia found herself drawn to.
Time blurred once more and Virginia became lost in her tasks.
That was until the door the bath room swung open abruptly and the house keeper appeared just as Virginia was making one final pass of the bath tub.
The house keeper glared at Virginia kneeling before the tub. The child fairly jumped out of her skin and froze where she kneeled.
The house keeper inspected the bath room with a keen eye and opened her mouth as if to point out some flaw in Virginia's work. But she held her tongue. She couldn't say anything.
The child had done her job well...very well.
"Come with me" she snapped, turning on her heel from the doorway, forcing Virginia to clumsily gather up her things and follow hastily.
She caught up to the house keeper just as she disappeared through into a large dining room, the center piece of which was a long shining mahogany table with seating for 12 people. It was quite possibly the largest table Virginia had ever seen.
The house keeper turned to Virginia and snatched the bucket and mop from her grasp, replacing them with a feather duster, a bottle of furniture polish.
"Every surface in here needs to be dusted and polished" the house keeper instructed. "There will be not one speck of dust on them when I return"
She swept from the room leaving Virginia to marvel at the austere beauty of the formal dining room she stood in. A huge grand father clock stood in the corner immediately to her left and she approached it serenely, gazing at the. shining brass pendulum that swung back and forth inside it.
Adjacent to the clock stood an imposing display cabinet which housed the most beautiful collection of crockery and glassware Virginia had ever seen. Hesitantly, she kneeled before the glass doors of the cabinet and cast her eyes over the wondrous treasures inside.
All at once Virginia felt a gout of panic rise within her and she stood bolt upright, flicking her head in one direction then the other. She couldn't understand why she was here after the brutal punishment she had received from the Pastoralist. Why had she been assigned to such a privileged position in the homestead when surely the older girls - Deliah and Marjorie - were entitled to move upward into a position such as this. It all felt so wrong. Why was she here? In this house?
The need to work, to distract her thoughts from anxiety flooded her and she rushed over to the entrance, picked up her equipment and furiously began dusting the furniture in an effort to calm herself. The grand father clock behind her suddenly came to life, it's internal mechanism clicking and whirring until the chime inside sounded noisily in her ears.
Virginia jumped and yelped audibly, scrambling underneath the table where she cowered until the clock finished chiming, loudly and methodically, eleven times. Then, the quiet tick-tock returned to the dining room.
Virginia hesitated, her heart thumping as she scanned the room, looking for any sign of somebody coming to punish her for making such a loud noise. But, nobody did appear and after several minutes, she cautiously crawled out from underneath the table and resumed her dusting albeit nervously.
From somewhere nearby - another room in the house, Virginia heard the sound of a curious crackling issue suddenly and she stopped her work and cocked her ear to listen. The crackling last mere seconds before it was replaced by the tinny sound of a piano being played and a lovely melody filtered through into the dining room.
It was the music.
Virginia slowly set the feather duster down and carefully tip toed across to the doorway, peeking around the frame of the entrance. The music was coming from directly across the hall, from the room that was the parlor - the very parlor that she knew so well from lingering outside the window on the verandah. Virginia positioned herself clandestinely so that she watch without being seen. A woman was visible through the doorway, sitting on a soft high backed chair, holding a violin in her hands.
It was the same woman whom Virginia had glimpsed through the curtains of the window. The same woman whom she had glimpsed from afar as she rode her horse out across the pastures regularly. The same woman who played her violin in such a way that whenever Virginia heard it, time stood still.
The woman was the Pastoralist's wife.
She was tall and stately, even when sitting down. Her hair was a rich chest-nut auburn, swept up on one side and clipped into place with an ornate hair pin. Her skin was as fine as porcelain - Virginia had never seen skin so soft and her large eyes were a deep jade green. Curiously, Virginia sensed something in those eyes - a hint of sadness - although she couldn't be sure.
The Pastoralist's wife's fingers were long and delicate, yet they held the instrument confidently. She wore mole-skins, leather riding boots and a checked shirt. Evidently, she had just returned from a canter on her horse.
Just in front of the woman, Virginia could see the conical brass shape of a gramophone's horn - the source of the music. As the piano accompaniment lilted towards a pause, the Pastoralist's wife lifted the violin to her neck and began to play, drawing the strange bow across the long end of the instrument and harmonizing beautifully with the piano.
Virginia was mesmerized.
Each stroke of the bow made the violin sing - not only in long, languid notes but also in rapid stanzas as though it were skipping across a pond like a smooth stone, catching the air as it moved ever forwards.
Virginia unconsciously moved further and further into view until her head was visible in the doorway. So engrossed in the music was she, she had failed to notice that the woman had detected Virginia out of the corner of her eye. One corner of her lips turned upwards but she gave no hint that she had seen Virginia.
The sonata continued and though the gramophone record featured both the piano and the violin, the Pastoralist's wife played so expertly that Virginia could hear only her violin as she played it.
It was more beautiful here and now, at such close quarters, than at any other time when Virginia had heard it.
Standing in full view in the door way now, Virginia remained completely unaware that the woman's playing had drawn her out from her hiding spot.
The sonata rose to it's finish and the woman lifted the bow away from the instrument with a theatrical flourish. Then, she looked directly at Virginia. The woman's deep green eyes drilled into Virginia's own and Virginia shivered.
She was paralyzed where she stood.
The Pastoralist's wife rested the violin on her lap and regarded Virginia with a flat expression.
Then, she tilted her head to one side.
"Come here" she said softly, beckoning with a gesture of her hand.
Virginia couldn't move. She shook her head reflexively.
The woman's expression coalesced into an unexpected smile.
"It's alright. I won't bite. Come and let me see you"
Something in the woman's voice relaxed Virginia and her fear melted away all at once. Slowly, she stepped forward, through the entrance and across the hall into the parlour until she was mere feet from the woman.
Once there, the Pastoralist's wife leaned forward and rested her elbows on her crossed legs, still balancing the violin in her lap.
"I've been watching you" she said. "I know you've been listening to my music"
The woman's voice was familiar but Virginia held her hands behind her back and tried to look everywhere but at the her. She was was fearful. She couldn't be sure whether the Pastoralist's wife was about to be angry or otherwise. Her demeanor didn't suggest anger but Virginia nonetheless remained on her guard. She had learned to fear any adult who focused their attention on her.
"What's your name?" the woman queried with an intrigued lilt to her voice.
Virginia hesitated, trying to quell the noise of her heart beat in her ears. She opened her mouth to speak but she bit her lip at the last moment, as though trying to prevent her voice from escaping.
"V...Virginia" she whispered scratchily.
"Virginia" the Pastoralist's wife echoed softly, smiling warmly. "That is a pretty name. My name is Mrs. Llewellyn"
"Llew..." Virginia began, struggling to pronounce the name. "...wellyn"
"That's right" the woman praised brightly. "You do have a good voice"
Virginia began to fidget nervously where she stood and stifled a wince when she arched one of her shoulders back causing a dagger of pain from her still raw wounds to knife through her.
Through a gap in the neck of her dress, Mrs. Llewellyn could see the top edge of a dressing that covered the wounds on Virginia's chest. A small spot of fresh blood. was visible. Mrs. Llewellyn's expression quickly melted into one of concern and, quite unexpectedly, one of guilt. She reached out towards Virginia and placed a gentle hand upon her shoulder.
"They still hurt you, yes?" she observed quietly.
This time, Virginia nodded. She did not pull away.
Something akin to shame flashed across the Pastoralist's wife's eyes and she looked away from Virginia fleetingly, her bottom lip quivered visibly as she tried to prevent tears from welling in her eyes.
Virginia eyes fell across the instrument in Mrs. Llewellyn's lap and she began studying it closely.
Mrs. Llewellyn's own gaze return to Virginia's face - then to the violin. She sat back in her chair, placed her hands on it and lifted the instrument towards Virginia.
"Come. Would you like to hold it?"
Virginia blinked and hesitated a moment, looking over her shoulder worriedly.
"Oh, don't worry about Merle," Mrs. Llewellyn assured her softly, holding the violin out closer. "Here"
Slowly, Virginia held out both her hands and allowed Mrs. Llewellyn to place the violin gently into them.
Virginia was immediately struck by just how light the instrument felt. It was as if it were hardly there at all. But, more than that, she was transfixed by it's beauty - it's richly grained wood surface, it's intricately scrolled neck.
"What do you think?" Mrs. Llewellyn asked.
Virginia's expression was one of reverence and unbeknownst to her, she bore a fascinated half smile.
Gently, she raised the violin up and turned it over in her hands, nestling it gently into the crook of her neck in an attempt to replicate the way she had observed Mrs. Llewellyn hold it.
Instinctively, she rested her chin onto the rest at the foot of the violin and held it there.
When she looked up at Mrs. Llewellyn, she was met with an approving smile and a nod.
"It feels natural...doesn't it" Mrs. Llewellyn observed.
Mrs. Llewellyn picked up the bow and placed it into Virginia's free hand. Then she gently manipulated Virginia's fingers into position on the fretboard of the violin.
"Now...see if you can produce a note"
Virginia looked up at Mrs. Llewellyn nervously.
"Go on. You can do it"
Slowly, Virginia raised the bow whilst trying to keep the fingers of her other hand in position on the fret board. She adjusted her grip on the bow and then closed her eyes, lowering it towards the center of the violin's strings. As she touched the surface, Virginia instinctively drew the bow across the strings smoothly, eliciting a perfect B flat note that lingered softly until she halted her stroke at the end of the bow's length.
It was then that she realized that she had closed her eyes.
Snapping them open, she glanced across at Mrs. Llewellyn who sat there nodding slowly.
"That was beautiful" she said. "How did it feel?"
Virginia stood there wearing a curious smile and holding the violin in position, the bow in her free hand. She felt a reluctance to let let go of the violin. It felt comfortable there in her grasp, as though she had always known it. Standing there in the parlour of the homestead, Virginia felt something inside of her that she had not felt in many months.
It was hope...
Gifts of the Peramangk is Copyright 2011, Hambledown Road Imprints & Dean Mayes.