The Call of the Stars

FictionIssue Four

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By Eleanor Limprecht

He woke at the usual time, before dawn. Andrew closed his eyes again, pulling the coverlet beneath his chin. When he woke the second time he could hear Lucy and the children trying to be quiet in the other room. He sat and stretched, rubbing his eyes, smelling the urine from the chamber pot and the smoke from the woodstove. He stood and opened the window, breathing in the salt air from the harbour and feeling a breeze ruffle his hair.

In the kitchen the stove was lit and porridge bubbled in a pot. Lucy was dressed, her hair combed back into a neat bun. The girls had their school frocks on and Lucy was brushing their hair while the littlest, his boy, rolled marbles across the kitchen table. Ellis was four, and he would go to the neighbour’s house today, for Lucy would be away.

Andrew kissed his wife on the neat line of her part and ruffled Ellis’s hair. The children smelled like the soap that Lucy scrubbed them with the day before – baths were on Sundays in the galvanised iron tub where she washed their clothes on Wednesday. For a moment, watching his son, Andrew wondered whether there wasn’t space for another, but already the neighbours thumped the thin terrace walls and threatened to have them evicted for the noise the children made – three of them in such a small space.

The year after Ellis was born Lucy had her first done, at the advice of a neighbour when they lived in Surry Hills. Now they are across the harbour, but Lucy would return to the same place. Nurse Sinclair’s Private Hospital. Just last week Andrew showed her an advertisement in the back of the Daily Telegraph, Nurse Sinclair was in Woollahra now.

‘Why do you think she’s moved?’ she asked Andrew in a low voice. The children were sleeping in the next room.

‘Those places are always moving – the police get wind of them and they set up shop in another neighbourhood. At least you know she’s reliable.’

Lucy put her hand on her stomach, though there was no sign yet of anything. Just the lack of her monthly. ‘The girls would help out.’

He’d folded up his newspaper. He stood and put his arms on her shoulders, bent to kiss her head. ‘Lucy,’ he said, ‘it’s hard to go through. Another would make things harder, though. And you, with your swollen feet. You said it was easier than you thought last time round. You’ll have a day in bed and be home before we can miss you.’

Now she has put his cup of tea in front of him and a bowl of porridge, the steam rising from both in narrow columns.

‘Don’t forget to pay the bill at the bootmakers and go to the bank. And buy some stamps at the post office so we can write your mother back, will you?’

Andrew nodded. He hardly thought of England and his mother now. They came over on an assisted passage when the girls were babies, and he could still recall word for word the pamphlet he’d brought home from the newspaper office.

‘The Stars Which Shine Over Australia, the Land of Opportunity, the Southern Cross,’ it began, with an image of the continent and the five stars which make up the cross. Beneath, it said:

‘The Call Of The Stars To British Men And Women:

★Men For The Land

★Women For The Home

★Employment Guaranteed

★Good Wages

★Plenty Of Opportunity.’

 

‘How are you going to work the land, Andy?’ Lucy said when he showed it to her.

‘They’re looking for linotype operators,’ he replied. ‘Their papers are just moving from hand-set to linotype. They’ve imported a ship full of Mergenthalers. But there’s a shortage of skilled men.’ His next free day he went to the Employment Exchange, and six months later they had their tickets for the passage over.

Some things on the pamphlet were right: the wages were good, but living was more expensive. His was a skilled trade, but they hadn’t the same unions as in England. They made do, but little things like school fees for the girls stretched them.

After the girls left for school and Ellis was dropped at the neighbour’s house Andrew and Lucy walked down to the ferry. He carried her suitcase, small and light though it was. The sun spread its early warmth over the low houses. A flock of cockatoos gathered in a tree above them and their little screeching sounds set his nerves on edge. He had never grown used to the sound of the birds here. Down at the dock the water shimmered with light. They watched the clean-hulled ferry approach. A breeze blew a strand of hair into Lucy’s mouth and Andrew pulled it free.

‘Are you worried?’ he asked.

‘Not a bit.’

They sat out on the deck for the ride across the harbour, among the men smoking and the schoolboys hanging over the edge. Most of the ladies stayed inside, but Lucy wasn’t afraid to put her face into the wind. He thought of the nights they’d slept on the deck of the steamer coming over from England, beneath the stars, the girls between them and the sound of the waves far beneath. There were rats in the hold, so they brought their bedding on the deck to sleep. There he would point out to the girls the way stars could be connected in the sky and would make up stories until they fell asleep.

When the girls were asleep Lucy and Andrew spoke of money – how they would save it, how much they would need. Only when Lucy’s eyes closed and her breathing became regular did Andrew feel as though he could sleep himself. And even then he woke often, reaching across in the dark to feel that each of them were still beside him.

Beside the ferry a seagull hovered in an updraft. The boat was just coming into the Quay. Here they would part ways, Lucy on a tram to Woollahra and Andrew to the Sydney Morning Herald office in the city. They watched the ferrymen toss ropes onto the dock and the people crowd the exit where the plank would be lowered to walk across. Lucy stayed in her seat and Andrew looked at her profile, the soft curve of her chin and the small point of her nose, her thin nostrils.

‘Shall we?’ he said, after a moment, offering his arm.

She took it, and they made their way through the press of people together.

Andrew walked her to the tram stop across the road from the Quay.

‘Do you have the money?’

She nodded, her lips pressed together.

‘I’ll see you day after tomorrow then?’

‘Yes.’

He wished that he could kiss her there, that he didn’t care so much for what people thought. Instead he touched her on the edge of her shoulder, tipped his hat and turned, walking towards the city without a backward glance.

At the corner of Pitt, Hunter and O’Connell streets Andrew entered the front doors of the Sydney Morning Herald office, past the front desk and down the stairs into the whirring and clicking room of the linotype machines. There were sixteen machines in the long narrow room, eight against each wall with pipes that rose from the ground to the ceiling above them. In front of each machine sat a man on a chair wearing an apron, typing on a keyboard from a sheet of paper with the article he was meant to set.

Here was the familiar heat of the machines, the smell of ink and hot lead, the whirring of the belts, the clack of the keyboard, the clunk of the slug dropping. Here was the clink sound of brass against brass as the matrices fell back into place. Whirr, clack, clunk, clink.

It was a sound which Andrew woke hearing in the dead of night, a sound that was deep within him. His father had been a typesetter at the Evening Standard when Andrew was a boy. When it came time for him to do his apprenticeship they were just importing the first Mergenthaler linotype machines from America. Andrew’s father was suspicious of the machines: how fast they were, how they would make his job obsolete. But Andrew loved the gleaming black beasts – the intricacies of them. He loved the keyboard with ninety keys in six rows of fifteen each. He loved the way the matrices slid down into the trapezoidal plate of the magazine in exactly the right place to fall onto the delivery belt and be lowered on the assembling elevator to the casting unit. He loved how they then went to be cast on the delivery slide, where an impression would be made in hot lead and spat back out the bottom, to be taken, gingerly, and arranged into a tray for a page.

He could set type on a linotype six times faster than by hand, Andrew told his dad, who didn’t want to know. His father’s job did disappear, hand setters became obsolete, and it was as though Andrew himself were responsible the way his father narrowed his eyes across the dinner table.

Andrew took a page and slipped into the chair in front of his machine silently, but Tom on the next machine noticed him and nodded, tilting his chin down so he looked above his glasses and the bare skin of his scalp reflected the light.

‘Sleep in then?’

‘You got me.’

He turned to the linotype. He’d forgotten his apron and stood to reach for it from the hook where it hung. He hung his hat in its place. His hands would always be black from rolling the proofs, particularly the grooves in the sides of his nails and the creases of skin, where the ink settles.

The copy boys ran the pages down the narrow stairwell from the first floor. He knew there was work coming when he heard their feet on the iron staircase, the noise like hitting a steel pipe. They yelled ‘copy!’ and the copy editor decided the page it would go on and delivered it to the operator setting that page. They each had a sheet in front of them holding stories to be set. Andrew could set as many as three pages in a day. He could tell which reporter had filed a story by the language of it, they didn’t have by-lines but their styles were easy to spot. The pages had been edited already, linotype operators weren’t meant to change things, but sometimes Andrew did. He used to tell the copy editor but all the fuss it caused – it was easier just to fix it. As long as he didn’t get caught.

Letters, always letters: italicised, capitalised, Garamond or Sans Serif. Andrew never stopped seeing letters, the way they moved and shifted on a page.

It took three years, the apprenticeship, but even after three years there were still mysteries about the linotype machine. It would take a lifetime, he thought, to reveal itself to him fully. There were still times when he jammed the slugs and was squirted with scalding liquid lead – he knew the noise which meant it was coming – the grinding cams, and always managed to leap out of his chair in time. Otherwise days passed in a haze of industry, in a whirr and a clunk clack clink.

The operators took their tea break at the same time, hanging their aprons and replacing their hats before shuffling out of the room, talking in low voices. Many of them went to the break room, but Andrew sought out the fresh air. He would walk to a pie cart, for Lucy didn’t pack him anything this morning in the rush of packing her own things.

He walked across to the Botanical Gardens and sat on a bench with his beef pie, eating it slowly, not eager to leave the sun and return to the long room of metal and letters. Watching the gardeners tend the long hedges in their coveralls he wondered for a moment what his life would have been like if he worked outdoors, his skin turning brown and the creases of his hands marked with soil rather than ink. He didn’t think of Lucy, of where she would be then, of whether things had begun or not.

Back at the office his machine waited for him, the stacks of stories, the letters ready to slide into place on the page. He would sit and set as late as they needed him tonight. The girls would come home from school and do the chores as Lucy had taught them, and they would fetch the boy and eat bread and lard for tea and put themselves to bed. He worked, lost in that rhythm of industry. It was Tom that broke his reverie calling his name. He looked up. Outside the high street-level windows the light had grown orange, it was six o’clock.

Tom was rubbing his glasses, holding a page, there was a strange catch in his voice.

‘What’s that?’

‘I said, mate, Lucy Edith Smith. I’ll bet it’s a coincidence, but isn’t that your wife’s name?’

Andrew took the page from Tom’s hands. Tom pointed to the paragraph, stuck within the police reports with a blunt, black finger.

 

WOMAN FOUND DEAD

A woman has been found dead in suspicious circumstances after police were called to a house in Woollahra today. She has been identified as Lucy Edith Smith of North Sydney. A man and a woman are in custody and will be charged in connection with her death at Paddington Court on Wednesday, April 29.

 

Andrew’s throat closed. He stumbled off his chair, knocking the magazine so narrow brass matrixes fell and skittered across the floor, clinking and clattering.

The copy editor came over, arms folded above his belly, ‘What’s all this?’

Andrew was out the door and up the stairwell, the page still in his hand, his breath caught in his windpipe. Tom was behind him, that thick hand on his shoulder, pulling him back. ‘Andy, calm down, there’s hundreds of Smiths.’

‘She was going to Woollahra today.’

Tom shook his head. ‘You’re sure it’s her?’

‘It must be.’

‘Go home, mate. If she’s not there in the morning, go to the police.’

What could he do? He took the ferry, grasping the railing in the dark so hard that his hands were marked. The girls thought their mother had gone to help out a friend and was staying a night or two. All three children were asleep when he got home, and he sat, watching them breathe, their arms and legs tangled in blankets. He wanted to be at work still. He wanted the noise and the industry, the certainty of the machine that he knew better than he knew himself, better than he knew his children, his wife. He sat, watching them, until the sky turned grey with early dawn, and then he left again, to avoid having to tell them.

Her body was at the morgue. Sergeant Barry took him there in a police wagon. It was on a long, narrow canvas stretcher and the coroner pulled back the grey blanket that covered it.

‘Yes,’ he muttered, and stepped forward to touch her. His fingers handled slugs so hot they could scald skin, but he wanted to know how cold she was.

Sergeant Barry held an arm out to stop him. ‘I can’t let you, we have to use her as evidence.’

Lucy lay there, her face exactly the same as it always was, only paler so the freckles on her cheeks stood out more. She wore her black skirt, white blouse, and her Eton jacket. Her belt was off and lay on the stretcher beside her, and her small suitcase was open on a desk. He saw, on the top, the daguerreotype of their children, the palm sized one that she carried with her.

His cheeks were cold. ‘Please can’t I touch her? She’s my wife.’

Sergeant Barry looked at the door.

‘Quickly then, make it brief.’

He left the room. The coroner turned away to the basin and made a show of washing some instruments. Andrew touched Lucy’s face, the spot behind her ear that had always made her laugh. He kissed her cold fingertips and pulled at the thin wedding band – it was hard to remove, but he did. He put the gold band in his pocket. It clinked against the coins there.

His heart whirred.

Sergeant Barry coughed as he re-entered the room.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘Can you step into the other room with me? We’re going to have to ask you a few questions.’

 

ANDREW WILLIAM SMITH, sworn, states: –

I am a linotype operator and live at 350 Alfred Street, North Sydney. The deceased was my wife and on the 27th at the Sydney Morgue I identified her body in the presence of the Coroner. She was 38 years old and was born at Bristol, England, and she left no property, we have three children, aged 7, 6, and 4 years respectively. She was of strictly temperate habits. I last saw her alive on the 26th when she left home about half past 12 p.m. She said she was going first to the bootmaker and then to the bank and she was then in her ordinarily good health. She was about 3 months pregnant. From something I saw in connection with my work at the Sydney Morning Herald office I went to No. 4 Police Station and there saw Sergeant Barry and then I went to the Sydney Morgue and saw my wife’s body. I can form no idea at all why she went to No. 486 Old South Head Road, Woollahra, and she never complained about being pregnant. I went home before I went to the Police Station.

 

Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.