by Kylie Tennant (1912-1988)
On Wednesday, Bronwyn discussed Kylie Tennant’s ALS prize-winning novel, The Battlers, and the hardships endured by female characters who tramped the outback. The following extract, from near the start of the novel, introduces one of those characters, Dancy Smith. The main character, Snow, having just slaughtered a stolen sheep, returns to his camp to find a ragged figure ransacking his supplies.
[Snowy] hung the carcase in a tree removed far enough from the clearing to escape the notice of any inquisitive visitors. Snow had been ‘in for meat’ several times, and another goal term was something he did not welcome. It was different in Queensland, where a man could always take a sheep for food as long as he left the skin hanging on the fence.
They [he and his dog] had reached the edge of the clearing when Bluey stiffened with a low, warning growl. Instantly Snow stopped in his tracks, peering towards the camp. There was someone there. Snow’s great fist tightened round his butcher’s knife. Someone was at his tucker-box, noisily and unhandily rummaging in it. A virtuous indignation seized him. Some thieving (adjective) robber was ‘ratting’ his tucker-box! He leant down and gripped the dog’s collar as he trod cat-footed into the fire-light and contemplated the dim shape.
‘What the hell you think you’re doing?’ he asked angrily.
A long-drawn shriek as the figure straightened up gave him nearly as great a fright as he had given the thief.
‘Cripes! it’s a woman!’ he said out loud, half in relief.
The object huddled in terror by the tucker-box, babbling at him, did not look like a woman. It looked like something the darkness had spewed forth in disgust. Its hair hung in bedraggled wisps through which eyes stared bulging with horror. A toothless mouth gaped at him as the creature panted and stammered. A shapeless mass of ragged clothing covered a body so insignificant that it looked like that of a child.
‘Oh, mister, don’t, don’t … hit me. I was that hungry. And I been walkin’ and walkin’ …’ the thing gasped, ‘… in the dark.’
‘Here,’ Snow said, quietening the snarling Bluey, ‘take it easy.’
He removed from the fire a blackened billy, from which he poured a o less blackened brew of tea.
‘Drink some of this.’
His captive gulped it down. ‘He chucked me out,’ she mumbled. ‘Jus’ left me by the side of the road hundreds of miles from nowhere an’ says: “Get to hell out of this, you whore.” And I ain’t. Nobody ain’t got any right to call me that. I was married to ‘im. I was. And I come away cos he says it’s a great life on the track an’ …’ She broke off: ‘I ain’t had nothin’ to eat since yestiday morning … An’ it was dark …’
‘You stay there,’ Snow admonished. ‘I won’t be long.’ The meat might be a bit tough, as it was so fresh, but if the hobgoblin hadn’t had anything to eat for two days, she wouldn’t be fussy.
He had just cut off a leg, and was turning back, when another scream brought him back the rest of the way at a run.
‘He bit me!’ the woman screamed furiously. ‘You damned blasted mongrel of a dog!’
At Snow’s voice, Bluey laid down hi head on his paws, his yellow eyes still jealously turned on the interloper. Viewing the teeth-marks on the leg held out from his inspection, Snow assured himself that the stranger was more frightened than hurt.
‘It’s just a nip,’ he told her. ‘Why’d you try to sneak away?’
The woman ignored the question. ‘I ‘ates damn dogs,’ she said sullenly.
She was so small — merely a bag of bones; and as she shiveringly accepted the old coat Snow passed her, he asked curiously: ‘How old ‘ud you be?’
‘You look more.’ She looked about sixty. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Dancy. And me married name’s Smif.’
‘Well, listen ‘ere, Dancy Smith, or whoever you are. I’m a married man, and I’m making ‘ome to me wife, so it ain’t no use you campin’ with me, see? But I wouldn’t turn a dog away if it was hungry.’
The girl Dancy snarled at him. ‘Oo wants to cam wiv you? I ‘ates men — ‘ates the whole bloomin’ lot of ’em. Wot do they ever do but sit back and watch women work? I ain’t never seen a man yet what was any good. The whole schemin’, lyin’, crawlin’ lot of ’em. I ‘ates ’em. And women, too,’ she added liberally. ‘Camp wiv you? Oo wants to camp wiv you?’
Snow was frying the mutton, and she fell silent, watching it ravenously. Then she snivelled a little. ‘I’m that scared of the dark. Something went “Yow!” ‘ She imitated the sound.
‘That’d be a ‘possum.’
‘I fought it was a ghost.’ She shuddered. ‘I got thinking of the time Dad come ‘ome. Walked out of the asylum ‘e did, wiv a coat over his asylum cloves. He come ‘ome to the residential where Mum was staying’ wiv me and the other kids. I was twelve. He come home on the Friday, and Saturday afternoon, when we was at the pi’tures, he cut her throat, and then he cut his own throat afterwards. The landlady made me go in wiv a mop and a bucket and clean up the floor. Bled to death, he had, all over it. And me wringin’ out the mop wiv me own farver’s blood on it. The landlady said they was my parents and I had to do it.’
With Snow’s repugnance there mingled a tiny strain of pity. He said nothing, but turned the meat on the fire.
‘Then me married sister took us. She ‘ated the sight of me. Thought the day wasn’t lucky if she didn’t find somefing to frash me for. I’ll put you, she says, where they’ll make you sorry you was born. And she told all the lies in court!’ Dancy broke off. ‘Ain’t that meat done yet?’
‘Give it a chance. What happened then?’
‘I went to Parramatta. I was in an’ out up to the time I was eighteen. The other girls taught me plenty. An edjucation I ‘ad.’
Snow interestedly contemplated this visitation from another world as it rambled on in a smattering of filthy words and bitterness, discoursing of alley and slum and reformatory.
‘You ain’t had much of a fair go,’ he said slowly at last. ‘You’s what you might call a Stray.’
The creature spat. ‘It’s men,’ she said. ‘Everywhere you go they’re runnin’ things. Trying to down you. An’ women, too. All of ’em rotten.’
Kylie Tennant, The Battlers (first published 1941; reprinted in Australian Classics series by Harper Collins, 2013); text retrieved 20/05/2023